Author: David Alton
As the last Christian is expelled from Mosul by ISIS – Times Article on why the world must respond to the cry of Iraq’s Christians – and the full text of the House of Lords debate on Article 18 and Freedom of Belief – with news of Meriam Ibrahim’s journey to Rome and ISIS subjecting women to female genital mutilation
Subject: The Times Thunderer, July 23rd, 2014
The world must respond to the cry of Iraq’s Christians
The faithful in Iraq still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus David Alton
Last updated at 12:01AM, July 23 2014
The last Christian has now been expelled from Mosul. The light of religious freedom, along with the entire Christian presence, has been extinguished in the Bible’s “great city of Nineveh” — the centre of Christianity in Iraq for two millennia. This follows the uncompromising ultimatum by the jihadists of Isis to convert or die.
On Sunday Pope Francis expressed his profound anguish: “Our brothers are persecuted, they are cast out, they are forced to leave their homes without having the chance to take anything with them.” The UN Security Council has denounced these crimes but we desperately need to do more.
Before pitilessly exiling the Christians on foot, Isis stole everything they had — homes, businesses, cars, money and even wedding rings, sometimes with the ring fingers attached. Churches have all been destroyed, shuttered or turned into mosques.
Isis has taken a sledgehammer to the tomb of Jonah, replaced the cross with the black Islamic flag on top of Mosul’s St Ephrem’s cathedral, and beheaded or crucified any Muslim who dared to dissent.
Even before the arrival of Isis, targeted persecution of Iraq’s Christians, who still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was ignored. The numbers in Mosul have gone from 30,000 to zero.
Iraq is now a disintegrating failed state. The only people who have successfully withstood Isis are the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. To their credit, the Kurdish leadership has been generously offering safe haven to Mosul’s fleeing Christians and has asked for international aid to help it do so. This crisis justifies huge humanitarian and resettlement aid that could include micro and business loans to help people to help themselves. The West must also press the Gulf to end the funding of Isis.
Overall the world must wake up urgently to the plight of the ancient churches throughout the region who are faced with the threat of mass murder and mass displacement. The UN claims it has “a duty to protect”, while Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, born in the embers of the Holocaust, insists that each of us must be free to follow our own beliefs.
The religious cleansing and unspeakable bigotry at work in Mosul makes hateful mockery of both.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench peer and tomorrow (July 24th) leads a House of Lords debate on Article 18
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Motion to Take Note
11.40 am July 24th 2014
Lord Alton of Liverpool
To move that this House takes note of international compliance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning freedom of belief.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who will participate in this balloted debate, which draws attention to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right. Article 18 states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
Today we will hear from many distinguished Members of your Lordships’ House, including my noble friend Lord Sacks, who says in The Dignity of Difference:
“The great faiths provide meaning and purpose for their adherents. The question is: can they make space for those who are not its adherents, who sing a different song, hear a different music, tell a different story? On that question, the fate of the 21st century may turn”.
The urgency of that challenge was reflected in a recent speech by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Douglas Alexander. Among systematic violations of Article 18, he particularly drew attention to what he described as “anti-Christian persecution”, which he said,
“must be named for the evil that it is, and challenged systematically by people of faith and of no faith”.
I know that we will hear later from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who will expand on that important speech. https://freedomdeclared.org/media/Douglas-Alexander-July-2014.pdf and here http://www.christiansontheleft.org.uk/douglas_alexander_on_freedom_of_religion
Two recent cases underline the universal applicability of Article 18. A young Indonesian man, Alexander Aan, was jailed for more than two years simply for declaring his atheism on Facebook. Mubarak Bala, a Nigerian, was confined to a mental institution for the same reason. Ben Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide visited Alexander Aan in prison in Indonesia and campaigned for his release. Such welcome advocacy by a group of one religious persuasion working for the freedom of another, whose beliefs are different—hearing different music, telling a different story—is echoed in a letter by world Buddhist leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, calling for an end to violence against Muslims in Burma. The Dalai Lama is emphatic that:
“The violence in Buddhist majority countries targeting religious minorities is completely unacceptable. I urge Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of the Buddha before them before they commit such a crime”.
Not only is Article 18 a universal human right; it is a human right that is violated universally.
Last year, under the admirable chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, of which I am an officer, published Article 18: An Orphaned Right. It noted that,
“almost 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief”.http://anorphanedrightmnet/
Thanks to major speeches by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, and the crucial work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the introduction of the European Union Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the excellent work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, this issue has been given greater prominence. I know that today’s important debate will contribute to that.
Yet, compared with Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom and its ambassador-at-large, the excellent Andrew Bennett, or the US State Department and the US Commission of International Religious Freedom, the Foreign Office has just one official specifically focused on freedom of religion, and only for a third of her time. The FCO has said that it wants to develop a toolkit on freedom of religion or belief for diplomats, stating that,
“every minister at the FCO is an ambassador for religious freedom, raising and promoting these issues in the countries with which they engage”.
But how will they do that? How are our diplomats trained in religious literacy? Compare the £34 billion spent on military operations since the Cold War with the paltry resources deployed in promoting Article 18—in promoting religious coexistence, public discourse and dialogue, foundational to building peaceful societies in a world increasingly afraid of difference.
In an all too brief survey of worldwide violations of Article 18, I inevitably begin in the Middle East, where, in the midst of an orgy of violence and brutality, we are fast approaching a time when Christianity will have no home in its ancient homelands. In Syria, the brutal murder in April of the 75 year-old Dutch Jesuit Father Franz van der Lugt, who had served there for 50 years, working in education and with disabled people, illustrates why an estimated 450,000 Christians have fled. Followers of other religions, notably the Mandeans, Yizidis, Baha’is and Ahmadis suffer similarly.
In Iraq, a Christian population of 1.4 million has been reduced to 150,000. In recent weeks, the depredations, beheadings and crucifixions by ISIS are almost beyond belief. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, no longer has a Christian community. Its churches are now closed, most having been desecrated. In what has been described as “religious cleansing”, ISIS says that anyone who refuses to convert and defies it will be,
“killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off”.
ISIS has taken a sledgehammer to the tomb of Jonah, replaced the cross with the black Islamic flag on top of Mosul’s St Ephraim’s Cathedral, and beheaded or crucified any Muslim who dares to dissent. This week in Istanbul, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, Professor Dr Mehmet Görmez, in his address to the participants of the World Islamic Scholars Peace, Moderation and Common Sense Initiative conference said that 1,000 Muslims are being killed each day, and that 90% of the killers are also Muslims. He said:
“They are being killed by their brothers”.
Yesterday, the archbishops of Iraq united in their condemnation of these events but also called on the outside world to help. The only people who have successfully withstood ISIS are the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. To its credit, the Kurdish leadership has been generously offering safe haven to Mosul’s fleeing Christians and has asked for international aid to help it do so. This crisis justifies huge humanitarian and resettlement aid that could include micro and business loans to help people to help themselves. The West must also press the Gulf to end the funding of ISIS. Where in Mosul is the “responsibility to protect”, let alone Article 18? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us.
Elsewhere, in Egypt, these are increasingly dangerous and menacing times for freedom of belief. As honorary president of the UK Copts, I saw the way in which Copts were targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Last year, in the single largest attack on Christians in Egypt since the 14th century, more than 50 churches were bombed or burnt. It was Egypt’s Kristallnacht. What priority do we give to Egypt’s minorities as we engage with the new President?
In Iran, the so-called moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in the 12 months since he was elected, has executed 800 people and imprisoned and tortured many others. Iran continues to target religious minorities, particularly Baha’is, whose cemeteries have been desecrated; 136 Baha’is are in prison, some since 2008. As “unprotected infidels” they can be attacked with impunity. Repression against Christians in Iran includes: waves of arrests and detentions; raids on church gatherings; raids on social gatherings; harsh interrogations; physical and psychological torture, including demands to recant and to identify other Christians; extended detentions without charge; violations of due process; convictions for ill defined crimes or on falsified political charges; economic targeting through exorbitant bail demands; and threats of execution for apostasy. What priority will our new chargé d’affaires in Tehran be giving these Article 18 issues when he meets the regime’s leadership?
I return now to Sudan and the treatment of Meriam Ibrahim, which was described by the Prime Minister as “barbaric”. In May, this young mother of two was charged, and sentenced to death for apostasy and 100 lashes for adultery. Having refused to renounceher faith, she was forced to give birth shackled in a prison cell in Khartoum. Happily, given a debate where we will be hearing so much that is so very sad and tragic, international pressure, often led by young internet campaigners, has led to her release. This morning, she arrived safely in Italy. However, Meriam Ibrahim’s case is not an isolated one. Archaic and cruel laws lead to stonings and lashings, with Al-Jazeera reporting that in one recent year, 43,000 women were publicly flogged.
In Nigeria, another crisis is looming for religion and unfolding on a daily basis. There are reports of collusion between elements of the military and Islamist forces. This week marks 100 days since Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok. Are we any nearer to finding them? My noble friend Lady Cox has just returned from Nigeria and will have much more to say about the situation and her report documenting that jihadist violence.
As the Minister responds to Article 18 abuses in Nigeria, might we hear something, too, about the plight of Christians in Kenya, who face increasing threats and attacks from al-Shabaab, and in Eritrea—another serious violator of freedom of religion? The UN has just established a Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, and I look forward to hearing how we will assist its work.
I have focused extensively on the Middle East and Africa, but across Asia, Article 18 faces serious threats as well. We will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the situation in Pakistan. Think of the bombing last September of the Anglican church in Peshawar, killing 127 and injuring 250, of the attacks on Shias and Ahmadis or of the imprisonment of and death sentences on Christians, such as Asia Bibi, charged with blasphemy. For challenging those laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs, was assassinated in 2011, and no one has been brought to justice.
Meanwhile, in Burma, Muslims are facing growing religious intolerance. In March 2013, I visited a village just outside Naypyidaw. In the charred embers of a burnt-out madrassah, I took statements from the few Muslims who had not fled. I met Rohingya Muslims and heard from ethnic Kachin and Chin Christians facing terrible persecution. Proposed new legislation to restrict religious conversions and interreligious marriage will hardly help; practical initiatives countering hate speech and intolerance might. Could we not ask the UN Secretary-General to visit Burma, specifically to address rising religious intolerance, and encourage the establishment of an international and independent inquiry into the violence in Rakhine state, Kachin state and other parts of the country?
Elsewhere in Asia, religious intolerance is rising, too, for example in Indonesia. I would welcome the Minister’s response to CSW’s new report, Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril, and the Government’s view of Prabowo Subianto’s attempts to undermine religious coexistence and his challenge to this week’s election results. There are also threats to Article 18 in India, with a BJP attack on an evangelical church in Uttar Pradesh last week; in Sri Lanka, where anti-Muslim violence has erupted; in Bangladesh, where, earlier this month, nuns were brutally attacked and beaten; in Malaysia, where a court has ruled that only Muslims can use the term “Allah”, even though Christians have traditionally also used that same term in their texts and in their languages; and in Brunei, where a full Sharia penal code is being introduced.
Turning to the Far East, I hope we will hear whether we have protested about the demolition of Protestant and Catholic churches there; the continued detention of the Catholic bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma, arrested in 2012; and the well-being of the Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar Tenzin Lhundup, about whom nothing has been heard since his arrest in May, and the self-immolation of 131 Tibetans since 2009. In 2009, I visited Tibet with the noble Lord, Lord Steel. Together, we published our report Breaking the Deadlock and, in highlighting the religious dimension, we argued:
“Any attempts to resolve the political situation … must take due account is of the profound spiritual life of Tibetan people”.
In Laos and Vietnam, the situation is perilous; I have given the noble Lord details. We had a debate only yesterday about what some have described as genocide in North Korea. For 10 years, I have chaired the all-party group and I commend the Hansard report of yesterday’s debate to all Members of the House.
As I have outlined in a speech which rather inadequately has tried to set the scene for the many more detailed interventions which will follow, Article 18 is under threat in almost every corner of the world. As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, we should recall that, long before Article 18, it asserted the importance of religious freedom.
Societies which deny such freedoms are invariably unhappy societies. Research shows that there is a direct link between economic prosperity and religious freedom. In 1965, Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s proclamation on religious freedom, said correctly that a society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched and one that does not will decay.
Article 18 is a foundational human right—many would say the foundational right—because, while there should be no hierarchy of rights and all rights are interdependent, without the freedom to choose, practise, share without coercion and change your beliefs, what freedom is there? As my noble friend Lord Sacks says, on this question, the fate of the 21st century may turn. I beg to move.
Lord Patten (Con):
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has just pointed to the clear and indisputable fact that religious pluralism is in the deepest peril worldwide. My sense is that this is at its highest point today within the Muslim world, despite the terrible fate of Christians in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed to. We must all deplore the attacks of Sunni on Shia, of Shia on Sunni and of both Shia and Sunni, when they can, on Alawites and Ismailis. It is Muslim on Muslim, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said.
I predict that this terrible intolerance of one sort of Muslim for another is spreading fast from the near and Middle East with attendant violence, even now, to countries such as Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim-majority nation on earth and has hitherto had quite a good reputation for religious pluralism and interreligious harmony.
Of course, Christians of different sorts have been just as bad in centuries past. We must never forget that. In England a few centuries ago, my co-religionists routinely burned or eviscerated and cut up the co-religionists of the right reverend Prelates on the Bishops’ Bench. When times altered politically, the Protestants took the chance to return the grisly compliment to my co-religionists. This is a terrible stain on both of us, which we must never forget. It can never be eradicated, any more than the joint attacks by both forms of Christianity on the Jewish faith, particularly in Europe, which are another stain on our history. Fingers should be pointed not at individual Muslims but simply at present facts. Centuries and horrors later, we all go to each other’s churches, visit each other’s synagogues and, despite terrible attacks on the latter which still happen in so-called civilised Europe and while our theological debate can be pretty vicious within different faiths, interfaith harmony more or less obtains between us.
Alas, in the Muslim world interfaith disharmony is spreading fast, not diminishing. That may take not just decades but centuries to play out until it reaches what Christians and Christians and Jews have managed to reach, if the lamentable history of interfaith warfare is any guide.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already pointed to Indonesia. We have the danger of that country being next. It is a complex country that I have visited. So much depends on the actions about freedom of belief by the new President. He faces increasing harassment, discrimination and violence, which fly in the face of the Indonesia constitution, against not just Christians but Ahmadis and adherents of traditional indigenous faiths and beliefs. Only zero tolerance by President Yudhoyono towards religious intolerance will stop the rot spreading, to the great disadvantage of minority religions and the stability and peace of the many islands that make up Indonesia. In the short term, Christian churches face persecution, such as happened this Thursday at churches such as HKBP Philadelphia church in Bekasi or the Yasmin church in Bogor, to give just two examples.
These threats spread and we see them spreading now, today, into Brunei in a state-sponsored way. There, the new penal code introduced by the ruler brings full-on Sharia penalties for those of other beliefs or those wishing even to change their beliefs. I have been trying to tot up the number of international agreements this breaks under the new Brunei code, starting with the declaration of human rights, through to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, both ratified by Brunei, to the ASEAN charter on respect for fundamental freedoms, under Article 2. The list lengthens. Unless Brunei draws back from the introduction of severe penalties of the most violent physical sort for even the propagation of faiths other than Islam or for persuading people to change religion, it will unleash a moral, civil and religious tiger within Brunei, and that country will end up turning on itself.
Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab):
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on his timely initiative. He gave many examples. In Mosul last weekend the Islamic state effectively declared war on the Christians of Iraq. They may soon be given the choice: convert or face the sword. Some 200 schoolgirls, as yet unaccounted for, were taken by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. In May we learnt of the fate of Meriam Ibrahim who, happily, just today has reached Europe. How many other cases of a similar nature have we not heard of? All are examples of a wider pattern of religious intolerance, mainly by Islamic extremists and the ignoring of Article 18 principles.
The good news, among the gloom, is that there is now a new recognition of the problem. I cite the all-party report on Article 18 and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and her colleagues on that. I pay warm tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Her speech at Georgetown University on 15 November last year was heartfelt and powerful and has been reflected in a new focus in the annual Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report.
His Royal Highness Prince Charles delivered a remarkable speech to Middle East faith leaders at Clarence House last December, where he said:
“It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants”.
Last month I organised a visit on the subject by a Council of Europe colleague and was happily amazed by the number of NGOs in London that are involved with this problem. The fact is that of the 131 countries of a broadly Christian culture, not one lacks religious toleration. Of the 49 countries of a Muslim culture, 17 tolerate no other religion. Pew Research shows that Christians are the most increasingly persecuted for their faith; Muslims are the second but that is mainly Muslim on Muslim save, for example, in Burma and Sri Lanka. Of course, we should not forget the plight of the peaceful Baha’is. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran states that:
“At least 734 Baha’is have reportedly been arrested since 2004 and 136 are currently detained”.
The same report stated, on Christians:
“In recent years, Christians, many of whom are converts from Muslim backgrounds, have faced a similar pattern of persecution”.
Why does it concern us? It concerns us because world peace depends on building bridges across such divides. States that honour Article 18 will honour other human rights. How do we, in the United Kingdom, respond? We can respond bilaterally, giving a good example by promoting human rights generally at home and not diminishing the work of the Council of Europe convention on human rights, for example. Secondly, we can focus not only on Christians, but highlight the persecution of Shia in Mosul, for example. We can speak up and express indignation in, for example, the annual human rights report. Equally, and more controversially, we should consider some conditionality on aid for those countries that are the major defaulters in this area.
Multilaterally, we are now a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Have we taken any initiatives in this field? There is EU conditionality. Are the EU External Action Service and the high representative adequately staffed in this area? The Council of Europe has a series of relevant partnership agreements with Morocco, Jordan and Palestine.
The overall situation is worsening though there are some signs of increasing recognition of the problem.
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ … ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’”.
Lord Avebury (LD):
My Lords, I, too, join in the congratulations that have been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on giving us this opportunity to deal with violations of Article 18 around the world, in particular the violations by Muslim on Muslim which have been mentioned by all three noble Lords who have spoken so far.
I want to ask what the Government are doing in particular about the assassinations and massacres of Shia Muslims in Pakistan by the terrorist organisations Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and Tehreek-e-Taliban. These organisations share a common ideology based on returning to the principles of governance and legal systems that they believe were followed by the rightly guided caliphs who succeeded the Prophet in the 7th century. They share a hatred of other forms of Islam, including particularly the Shia, who form 20% of the population of Pakistan. However, anybody who does not share the terrorists’ medieval beliefs is seen as a target, including Ahmadi Muslims and Christians, who are also victims of targeted assassinations and legal persecution under the blasphemy laws.
To see the destination to which these people would take Pakistan, look at what is happening in the areas of Syria and Iraq occupied by ISIS, a similar band of off-the-wall genocidal thugs. They have executed thousands of Shia and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, are driving out the 4,000 year-old Christian community of Mosul after stripping them of all their property. The Pakistani fundamentalists say on the internet and at public meetings that the Shia are infidels who must be killed. In 2013, the International Imam Hussain Council recorded nearly 700 Shia murders. The actual number was higher because reports dried up after media workers were killed and threatened.
The Pakistan army has launched a major operation against the terrorist bases in North Waziristan, but military action is also needed to counter the terrorism in Sindh and Punjab. The anti-crime campaign in Karachi, which has been going on for nearly a year, has not been a success. The newspaper Dawn reported that, in the first few months, several TTP killers had been arrested but their political masters raised a hue and cry. Both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif supported Aurangzeb Farooqi, head of the ASWJ, when he stood under the banner of the Wahhabi alliance at the 2013 elections. He was one of 53 alleged terrorists whose candidature raised not a word of protest from the conventional parties. These parties are naive enough to believe in the existence of the “good Taliban” who can be persuaded to play by the rules of democracy and the UDHR. But when negotiations were attempted in February, there was no sign that the terrorists would abandon their objective of transforming Pakistan into a Wahhabi caliphate.
The spread of violent extremism in Sindh, and in Karachi in particular, is fuelled by the growth of religious seminaries peddling a doctrine similar to Wahhabism and funded by sources in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular. According to the New York Times, there are 4,000 of these seminaries across Sindh and the ASWJ has signed up 50,000 members in the province in parallel. In Islamabad, 26 unauthorised Deobandi mosques provide sanctuary to TTP-ASWJ terrorists. There is no system of inspection of mosques to ensure that their curriculum is within the law—a matter which should interest us in view of the revelations about schools in Birmingham.
It is the ideology that says God orders its adherents to kill people with different beliefs that needs to be eliminated. The UN Human Rights Council should identify and block the funding that spreads religious hatred, and we should press far more robustly for the infamous blasphemy laws in Pakistan to be repealed.
In April, the Select Committee on International Development asked the Government to produce clear evidence that our aid programme was effective in reducing the extremist threat in Pakistan. In response, the Government pointed out that,
“Education is vital to transforming Pakistan’s future and is where a significant proportion of our funds are directed. This is firmly in the UK’s own national interest”.
However, the country has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, and the popularity of the madrassas is largely due to the inadequacy of the public education system. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will elaborate on how we assess value for money in our educational spending in Pakistan and how it combats religious hatred and intolerance.
Baroness Cox (CB):
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend on this important debate. Time only allows me to highlight two often forgotten situations: the plight of Ahmadis, and northern Nigeria, which I recently visited.
Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan continue to suffer violence, murder and attacks on their mosques, businesses and properties. Although they adhere to their principle of “love for all, hatred for none”, they also suffer persecution in Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria and the Middle East. I wish I could say much more, but time only allows me to put this concern on the record.
In Nigeria, the 12 northern states and Plateau state have suffered for many years from conflicts associated with religious tensions and the nomadic Fulani. Thousands of Christians and many Muslims have been killed. Hundreds of churches and some mosques have been burnt. Systematic discrimination and repeated attacks have led the Anglican Bishop of Kano to describe as “religious cleansing” the mass exodus of non-indigene Christians long before Boko Haram arrived.
Boko Haram’s agenda is the expulsion of all Christians from northern Nigeria. Many Muslims who do not support Boko Haram have also been slaughtered, while bombings in public places inflict death and injury indiscriminately. I and a small group from my NGO, HART, returned just two weeks ago from those areas. The suffering wrought by Boko Haram is devastating. There are almost daily reports of killings of civilians. Reliable statistics are hard to ascertain, but an estimated 5,000 people have been killed since January. Widely reported bombings this year include three on Abuja, with over 430 deaths, and two in Jos, killing 125 people. Kaduna, Kano, Bauchi and other north-eastern cities have also suffered regular bombings.
The majority of Boko Haram’s victims are killed during the almost daily attacks on villages across the north-east that receive far less attention. Just three examples while we were in the region include attacks on 30 June in Bau, Taraba state, with 300 homes burnt, many people killed and everything destroyed including the church and all the crops. On the same day there was an attack on a Christian community near Gwallaga in Bauchi state. On 28 June, Fan in Plateau state, which we visited, was attacked in what local people call a jihad assault with heavy guns and trucks.
The scale of abductions is horrific. Even before the widely publicised kidnapping of the schoolgirls at Chibok, at least 1,800 people had already reportedly been abducted in Maiduguri, and 60 girls and 31 boys have subsequently been abducted. Boko Haram’s hatred of western education and education for girls has resulted, since 2012, in the burning of more than 300 schools, with more than 10,000 children deprived of education. Some 173 teachers have been killed this year. Some live in such terror that they will not even carry a pen as it would indicate their profession. Brutal attacks on teachers on school property have been reported with security forces standing by.
Many people are concerned by indications that Boko Haram is supported by senior figures in the military and the Government, by its increasingly sophisticated training and weaponry, by the allegations of evidence of international support from Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran, by links with al-Shabaab, and by the use of foreign mercenaries from Syria, Chad, Niger and Libya. Consequently, there is very widespread anxiety over the possible disintegration of the nation of Nigeria and/or the spread of militant Islam beyond the northern states to other parts of the country; and that the President and the Government do not have the will or the capacity to withstand the process of Islamisation spearheaded by Boko Haram.
More positively, there are creative initiatives to foster reconciliation between communities fractured by violence between Christians and Muslims. We visited one programme in Jos and were deeply encouraged by the friendships between the different faith traditions. It is hoped that such confidence-building measures will reduce the propensity for renewed violence and help Muslims who do not wish to radicalise to withstand pressures from extremists such as Boko Haram. But it remains to be seen whether these positive developments at grass-roots level can make a significant difference for the future of the nation.
I ask the Minister: what representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Nigeria to ensure the security of all civilians, the protection of their right to freedom of religion and belief, and the provision of humanitarian assistance to the victims of Boko Haram’s assaults? What assistance is being given by DfID both to provide humanitarian assistance to those victims and to support those much needed initiatives to promote reconciliation and confidence-building between Christian and Muslim communities, particularly in the epicentres of violence, such as Bauchi and Jos, which are the current front lines in the battle against Islamist extremism, which poses such grave threats for the future of the nation and, ultimately, further afield throughout Africa?
Lord Cormack (Con):
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave us a splendid and comprehensive opening speech, for which we are all extremely grateful. It is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I have unstinted admiration for her courage, tenacity, energy and all that she does to stand up for what is good, honest, holy and of good report.
A civilised country must have as its hallmark that it allows its citizens to believe in peace and to worship in public without any threat. In the admirable report produced by my noble friend Lady Berridge and others, it is shameful to read that in 139 countries between 2006 and 2010 Christians were harassed. Although I am proud to be a Christian and we live in what is still essentially a Christian country, we should all be concerned, whether the persecution is of Muslims in Burma, Hindus in Pakistan, Falun Gong in China or Baha’i in Iran.
In the brief time I have, I would like to make one or two concrete proposals to my noble friend who will respond to this debate. First, I would like to see a unit in No. 10 devoted to religious freedom around the world. Secondly, I would like to see a high-level ambassador appointed to travel the world and give this message. He may not thank me for the suggestion but who better than my right honourable friend William Hague, who will have time on his hands next year? As the author of a notable biography of William Wilberforce, who better to press these points home?
I would also like us to have another of these summits. Summits seem to be the flavour of the time. We had one recently on female genital mutilation—very important indeed. We have had others. But a summit in London summoned by and addressed by the Prime Minister and the other political leaders could do a great deal to focus world attention on this terrible problem. It is a terrible problem because the future of civilisation—no less—is at stake.
Progress can be made. I speak with some small personal knowledge here. When I entered another place in 1970, I helped to form, with the noble Lord, Lord Janner of Braunstone, the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry. I spoke to persecuted Jews in Moscow as the KGB was knocking at their doors to arrest them. In 1990, 20 years later, as chairman of an international human rights organisation, I—who had been forbidden any visa to go into the Soviet Union, who had had the Soviet embassy door slammed in my face—was there in the heart of the Kremlin handing a Bible to the chef de cabinet of Mr Gorbachev, symbolic of a million that they were allowing in. During the course of that conversation, I was told that by the end of the year, no one in the Soviet Union would be in prison for their religious belief. We have all been reminded recently that what is going on in Russia at the moment is not all sweetness and light, and we are deeply exercised by what we have heard. But, nevertheless, the fact that such progress could be made in those 20 years, and that even now Christians in Russia are indeed allowed to worship in freedom, as are others, is the mark of real progress.
Last Sunday I attended a patronal festival in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. It was the feast of St Margaret of Antioch and the Dean of Westminster preached a moving and splendid sermon. He referred to the desecration of Mosul and spoke, with the degree of concern and embarrassment that we all feel, about some of the dictatorships that did allow Christians and others to worship in freedom. We must address what has happened, unequivocally declare war on extremism wherever it is to be found, and by doing the sort of things I proposed a moment ago, this Government could play a significant part in doing precisely that.
Lord Parekh (Lab):
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for securing this debate and introducing it so well. The freedom to profess and practise religion is obviously a fundamental human right, so I will not spend any time emphasising its importance. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave us a catalogue of all the various countries where this right has been systematically violated, and we have seen horrendous cases of religious hatred, bigotry and violence. I want to shift the focus slightly. Although we have been looking at the rest of the world, it might not be entirely amiss to look at ourselves from time to time.
Let us consider, for example, the controversy in France about wearing the hijab; Muslim girls are not allowed to wear it. There is the referendum in Switzerland which has declared that minarets on mosques should not exceed a certain height. This is not only a matter for day-to-day politics. It has been embodied into the Swiss constitution so it cannot be changed without an enormous amount of effort. Let us consider the trouble that Sikhs encountered here in our own country in trying to wear their turbans when working on building sites and so on. I want to suggest that, while it is absolutely vital that we should fight all forms of religious bigotry where it exists, it might be useful to look at the kind of difficulties that countries which are otherwise well-meaning face in implementing religious freedom. Extremes are easy to spot and to deal with, but what is not so easy is dealing with the practices of countries like our own, or India or most others, that mean well but get into certain difficulties and face dilemmas. I thought I would alert noble Lords to around half a dozen of the difficulties which different countries have faced from time to time.
The right to profess religion includes the right to propagate it, although it is striking to note that Article 18 makes no reference to the right to do so. However, we all recognise that religious freedom must include the right to propagate it. How far does propagating one’s religion go? Does it include proselytising? If it does, how far can proselytising go? Can you use financial inducements in the way so many American evangelicals have done in India? Can you use social or moral tricks such as saying, “If you do not convert to Christianity or Islam, your soul will be condemned to damnation”? When these things happen in certain countries, naturally people get a little worried and begin to ask themselves what legitimate limits might be placed on religious freedom. That is one area of controversy.
Another area is this. Religious freedom is fine, but religion includes all manner of beliefs. What sorts of belief might we tolerate and what might we not? For example, Catholics have taught over the years that Jews killed their Lord and are guilty of deicide. Is that the kind of belief that should be freely allowed? Should Muslims be freely allowed to tell their children that all idolaters—unfortunately, I, as a Hindu, would be an idolater—are condemned to go to hell and should be summarily dispensed with?
Thirdly, there are religious practices: church bells, for example, or muezzins calling people to prayer, or wearing a hijab, which is the kind of problem the French faced. Should all religious practices be allowed? Going a step further, there are religiously based social practices. For example, if my religion says polygamy is permitted, should it be allowed? If my religion says untouchability is sanctioned, should it be allowed?
Fourthly, there is the scope of religious freedom. This is the problem they faced in Switzerland. Minarets became a problem not in themselves, but because it was felt that minarets of a certain height changed the landscape and the identity of the country or of the area in which they were located. That is something that worried them. It was not a question of human rights because the question cannot be articulated in the language of human rights. No one’s human rights were violated. It can be articulated only in the language of collective identity. Does a nation or culture have a right to a certain kind of environment and landscape in which it can recognise itself?
My suggestion is simply that, while we ought to concentrate on these enormous acts of religious violence and hatred and deal with them as effectively as we can, there are two important issues to remember. First, problems to do with religious freedom arise in all societies—civilised and so-called not so civilised. Secondly, religions over the centuries have lived in peace in one form or another. We need to ask ourselves what has happened in modernity and what new forces it has generated, so that we can understand why people who once knew how to live together—had developed traditions, good sense and practices of living together—suddenly are at each other’s throat.
Lord Hylton (CB):
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing the debate. In recent years, we have seen how closely foreign affairs and home affairs interact. For that reason, I strongly welcome the statement by 100 British Muslim imams against young men going to Syria, Iraq and other places for jihad. I trust the imams know of the work in Iraq, ever since the fall of Saddam, of Canon Andrew White. He has brought together the senior religious leaders of all traditions. Many participants in these meetings had never met each other before. The results were unprecedented: joint Shia-Sunni fatwas, first against suicide bombing and later against violence of any kind directed at minority groups. The high-level meetings were followed up by a series of local ones.
The congregation of St George’s church, Baghdad, which is technically Anglican and served by my friend, Canon White, contains people from every Christian tradition that ever existed in Iraq. Next to the church is a fully equipped, free medical clinic, serving all comers.
Despite the almost total exodus of Christians from the city of Mosul, which has been mentioned, I am glad to say that last Sunday there was a joint Christian-Muslim service in St George’s Catholic Chaldean church in or near Mosul. They celebrated their common Iraqi citizenship. Patriarch Sako was quoted as saying:
“I carry every Iraqi in my heart”.
The aforementioned exodus was caused by the so-called Islamic State. My other friend, Mr Yonadam Kanna, a long-serving member of the Iraqi Parliament, sadly reported that five Christian families in Mosul had been forced to convert to Islam because they were too old or too ill to flee.
In the last 100 years, the once-thriving Armenian and Jewish communities have been almost entirely driven out of Iraq. There are now only five or six Jews remaining. As my noble friend Lord Alton mentioned, Iraqi Christians once numbered about 1.5 million in 2003; today, they are reduced to perhaps 250,000. Many have been killed, while others fled to neighbouring states or, if possible, reached Britain, North America or Australia. Humanitarian support for all groups is now more needed than ever. That is why I greatly welcome the concern recently expressed by the Pope and the UN Secretary-General.
In the Middle East outside Iraq, violence in Palestine and Israel has led, I am sorry to say, to fall-out in Europe. I condemn as strongly as possible violence in France and Germany against Jews or anywhere against Muslims. Branding people unjustly as terrorists or scapegoating them because of their religious affiliation is wrong. It recalls the dehumanisation of the other that took place in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda and leads all too easily to genocide. There are no sub-humans. We have to discover and to respect each other’s God-given dignity, remembering that the blood in the veins of all is always red.
Do Her Majesty’s Government see Article 18 of the universal declaration as an important criterion for the selection of the next UN Secretary-General? If that person will not uphold freedom of conscience and faith, and freedom to change one’s religion, then who will?
What is the Government’s policy towards the 23 countries with laws on apostasy? Will they take up this matter with the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference? Will they bear in mind that so-called crimes of apostasy and blasphemy are often punishable by death? Many countries that have abolished or suspended capital punishment should be useful allies on this point. Everyone should know that freedom to choose and respect for diversity are both desirable in themselves and good for society.
The Lord Bishop of Coventry:
My Lords, like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate and pay tribute to his great efforts on this vital issue. I thank him for his reference to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. I have a personal connection with the charter, as one of my predecessors, William, was among the reverend fathers who advised the King to enshrine its principles of justice and freedom, including freedoms of religion. Magna Carta, despite our own failings—to which reference has been made—to live up to its logic, remains the seed of a tree of which Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is part, and under the cover of which all the peoples of the world should be allowed to stand.
Freedom of belief, including the freedom to change one’s belief, is like a canary in the mine of human rights. Abuses of religious freedom are often an early indication that all is not well. Indonesia, to which we have already heard reference, has shown worrying signs of this dynamic, with properly licensed churches being closed by an alliance of local government and extremist groups tolerated by the national state, followed in its wake by wider restrictions on freedom of expression. We look for more hopeful signs in this new future.
Where religious freedom is abused, peace and security often become more elusive. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan give rise to societal hostility to minority groups, legitimising people of violence. And then, when extremism sets in and takes hold, Governments are tempted to restrict everyone’s liberty in their attempt to overcome extremists but, in fact, strengthen their hand by weakening the democratic voice of others and restricting the democratic space for all, as we saw in Egypt under President Mubarak, and there is a greater risk under President Sisi.
Promoting freedom of religion is an important counterterrorism strategy. Matters of religious freedom are woven throughout many of the greatest foreign policy challenges facing our nation so it is self-evident that we must have an effective, religiously informed, philosophically sound strategy to guide how our Government will protect and promote it abroad. I hope therefore that the Minister will be able to give assurances that the recent Cabinet reshuffle will not lead to a weakening in the Government’s own commitments to freedom of religion and belief, including the role of the former Foreign Secretary’s Human Rights Advisory Group and the newly formed working group on religious freedom. I hope that, on the contrary, there will be, following the very fine proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a strengthening of our systems and capabilities.
Ensuring Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to upholding and defending Article 18 remains critical since, by any measurement, as we all know, this freedom is under serious and sustained pressure across so much of the globe, with an estimated 76% of the world’s population enduring a high or very high level of restrictions, among them the estimated 250 million Christians bearing persecution in one form or another and nowhere more so, as we have heard, than in the ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. The desperate, dignified letter of the Armenian Patriarch of Babylon following recent events in Mosul,
“to all who have a living conscience in Iraq and all the world”,
is a tract for our times. We cannot be silent or inactive in the face of such suffering. We must also, according to the same conscience, at the same time, with the same resolve—as the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Avebury, and others have said—speak out for the Shi’ite Muslims and Sufi minorities in that place, who are facing barbaric cruelty. I was very impressed with the Iraqi al-Khoei Foundation’s statement this week, condemning the destruction of the Christian community in Mosul and beyond.
In that spirit, my hope is that churches and faith communities here in the UK will find ways to speak out together in a regular and routine manner whenever Article 18 is threatened, giving people a clear space and affirmation, encouraging them to be able to sing their song in different places and in different ways. Speaking together and acting in this way would draw on the deep patterns of peaceful coexistence that religious communities at their best have lived out through the centuries in cities such as Mosul throughout the world. It would be a common witness against the politicisation of religion and the manipulation of it by people of violence with evil intent, and a witness against the internal degradation of religion. It would model new ways of relating that would challenge the way international religious freedom is understood. It would help to counter accusations of colonialism, often reinforced in media reporting, that sometimes construe Article 18 along narrowly confessional lines. It would help to build a wider international consensus that creates the necessary space for Governments around the world to defend this most basic freedom of humanity.
Baroness Berridge (Con):
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom. In 2012, Pew Research found that there was violence or the threat of violence to compel people to adhere to religious norms in 39% of countries, up from just 18% in 2007. Muslims and Jews experienced six-year highs in the number of countries in which they were harassed by governments, individuals or groups. Christians and Muslims were harassed in the largest number of countries—110 and 109 respectively. This accelerating deterioration is not confined to any particular religion, belief or ideology and all continents are affected.
In Pakistan, Hindu families are fleeing to refugee camps because Hindu women and girls are being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. These girls include Lucky Bhel, who was kidnapped in the Sindh region and forced to convert and marry the disciple of a local religious leader. In other areas of the world, it is Muslims who face restrictions, such as Chinese Uighur Muslim students who are being denied the freedom to observe the Ramadan fast. Monitored by teaching staff, they are threatened with not receiving their degree if they refuse to eat. Ironically, in Iran this month, five inhabitants of Kermanshah were flogged and in Tehran the lips of a Christian were burnt with cigarettes for not fasting.
In Colombia, 200 churches have been forced to close by armed criminal gangs, and the constitutional court has held that indigenous Colombians do not have the same rights relating to religious freedom as the rest of the population. The report Freedom of Thought 2013 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union states that you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries. Kazakhstan recently imposed two five-day prison sentences on a Muslim and a Baptist. Their offences were, respectively, distributing religious literature that has not passed the state censorship that allows Muslim literature to be only Sunni, and meeting their fellow Christians for worship without state permission.
The former situation of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan pinpoints the nub of Article 18. It is the right of every human being to choose their own religion, to choose not to have a religion or to choose to change their religion. You may choose to follow the faith of your family but it is not like DNA: you do not have to inherit the faith of your parents. Meriam was deemed a Muslim because that was her father’s faith, but she chose the Christian faith of her mother.
The failure to protect the Article 18 rights for 76% of the human population is nothing short of a global crisis. In the time allowed, I have two brief suggestions. First, in our international development policy, freedom of religion and belief must be a priority, as it is in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to Canon Andrew White, who has been in Baghdad of late. In response to a Written Question, I asked whether any of the humanitarian aid had gone to supporting his reconciliation work. Unfortunately, the reply I received was that he had not applied. I ask the Minister: when Canon White returns to the country this weekend, could we perhaps telephone him to see if he needs any assistance?
Secondly, we must put our own house in order. It is easy to see abuse of Article 18 rights as something that happens in countries where more people hold to more religious views, more passionately. However, are not the issues in Peter Clarke’s report about schools in Birmingham also about respect for Article 18 rights of both Muslim and non-Muslim children? “Dispatches” revealed centres in north London that teach children according to an alleged interpretation of Judaism and curtail contact with the outside world. The same concern exists at the extreme end of allegedly Christian communities.
Can it really be the case that the Ahmaddiya Muslim community has been told that it cannot join SACRE in Birmingham unless its members refuse to call themselves Muslims? Leaders I have spoken to say that this is reminiscent of how the persecution began in Pakistan. We will not be heard on a world stage if we neglect Article 18 duties here at home. Are we dealing with concerns relating to Islamic extremes while ignoring others? We may not be Sudan, saying, “You have to have the faith of your father”, but are some children not exposed to other messages or beliefs in our plural society? Without such exposure, can these young people be said to have made any choice, particularly one that complies with Article 18?
RE is a valuable part of the school curriculum, but should not Article 18—your right to choose your faith—also be a key feature of our curriculum? Combined with the anecdotal evidence of difficulties for some people in the UK to convert, is it not time we had an Article 18 assessment here at home or invited the UN special rapporteur to visit us?
ISIS has used social media for ill, but we have yet to see religious communities use it to promote their messages. Smartphones have the potential to expose young people to messages like never before and create huge shifts in people’s religious affiliations. For that reason, urgent action is needed. Article 18 will be the primary challenge in human rights law for the next generation.
Lord Desai (Lab):
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, who has done so much for the cause of religious freedom. I have also been impressed by the many noble Lords who have reported on human rights violations of Article 18 around the world.
I will concentrate not on what ought to be, but on what is, and why. The UDHR was more or less a dead letter in the years of the Cold War. We each tried to protect out patch and let the communists do what they liked by way of persecution. Their persecution was secular, not religious—they persecuted the religious and atheists alike. It is only since the breakdown of the Cold War in 1991 that the discourse on human rights has become important in the international sphere. I remember that because I did some work on it for the United Nations Development Programme some years ago. What has happened since the beginning of the 21st century is that the golden period of about 10 years when we could talk about human rights and enforce human rights has now gone, for two major reasons. First, the rise of Islamism, as a threat to Muslim states in the Middle East and Asia, has weakened the state in those countries. Islamism has also posed a terrorist threat to western countries, whereby the whole question of religious identity has become somewhat debatable.
In the past three or four years, we have witnessed the breakdown of the international order. We were used to an international order, with the United States, the UK, France, and so on going out to protect certain kinds of freedom around the world. What we have witnessed in Syria and since is that nobody is going to police this world. If nation states are weak with respect to attacks on minorities—if not complicit sometimes in attacks on minorities, as in ISIS, and Brunei and in various other places—and if the international system is not capable of rushing to the aid of people whose human rights are being violated, it is clear that that sort of international system is now dead. Not all that many years ago, people were against a unipolar system and were dying for a multipolar system of international relations. Well, it is here—and it is dreadful, because a multipolar system is an anarchic system, and in an anarchic system whoever has the power of armaments and money will get away with violating people’s human rights. It is not just about Article 18; the sheer safety of civilians is being violated across the Middle East. As many noble Lords have said, Muslims are killing Muslims in larger numbers than ever in the past. It is not just Sunnis killing Shias and Shias killing Sunnis; Sunnis are killing Sunnis as well, in ISIS.
The international system is helpless, because we have decided that liberal interventionism is no longer possible. That is our decision. Whether it is right or not, we have decided that it is not possible. If you cannot be a liberal interventionist, you cannot enforce human rights. You can have advisories, ambassadors and Ministers going around the world and cajoling states to do this or that, but they are not going to take any notice; why should they? Unless there is some sort of sanction of arms—let us be absolutely frank about this—behind our determination to restore human rights, they will not be honoured.
The only thing on which I would disagree with my noble friend Lord Parekh is that religions have not always lived in peace with each other—in fact, hardly ever. Eras of religious peace are rare; religious tolerance is a rare thing, which is why we always talk about it. I do not have time to go into examples, but most of the time religions are nasty to each other. World history could be written around that.
In this limited sphere, what can we effectively do? As in the example of Meriam Ibrahim, yes, if you can harness public opinion in a very large way, perhaps you can make a partial difference. However, our problem arises from the breakdown of the international order, rather than any particular nastiness on the part of any particular religion.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB):
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important debate. We have heard moving accounts of Muslims in Burma and Tamils in Sri Lanka persecuted by militant Buddhists, with Christians persecuted and marginalised in much of the Middle East, Sudan and other parts of Africa. Yesterday’s Times carried a moving article by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the plight of Christians in Iraq. We are all disturbed by the loss of life in conflict between the Shias, Sunnis and Alawites in Syria and Iraq and the persecution of Ahmadiyyas and Shias in Pakistan. I could go on. We can continue to condemn such killings, but if we are to make real progress, we need to look hard and dispassionately at why people of religion become either victims or perpetrators of religious hatred.
I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I speak frankly. Religions do not help themselves by claims of exclusivity or superiority. This simply demeans other members of our one human race and suggests that they, the others, are lesser beings. We all know what happens in the school playground when one boy boasts—it is usually boys—that, “My dad is bigger or stronger or cleverer than your dad”. The end result is fisticuffs. My appeal to our different religions and the leaders of religion is to stop playing children’s games. Guru Nanak witnessed the suffering caused by this children’s game of “my religion is better than yours” in conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the sub-continent in the 15th century. In his very first sermon, he declared that the one God of us all is not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels, but in our contribution to a fairer and more peaceful world.
There is another important area that must be tackled if we are to move away from continuing conflict between religions. Most religious scriptures were written many years after the death of the founder of the religion. Scriptural texts often contain a complex amalgam of history, social and cultural norms of the day that can easily become dated. They can easily mask and distort important underlying ethical imperatives about our responsibilities to one another and to future generations. It is sometimes claimed that often contradictory texts in different religions are the literal word of God. Those who wish to resort to violence in the name of religion can all too easily ignore the context and use quotations in scriptures to justify negative attitudes and violent behaviour towards others.
I believe that what is required is greater open dialogue that puts transient social and cultural norms embedded in scriptures in their true context. It is not easy. My plea to our Government is for them to give an energetic lead in promoting true interfaith dialogue that puts distorting history and culture in their true perspective to reveal common underlying ethical imperatives in our different faiths. Such a dialogue would provide sane and uplifting guidance for responsible and peaceful living in the complex world of today.
Lord Haskel (Lab):
My Lords, I have always had a particular interest in Article 18, because it was persecution that brought me to this country as a child. I hope that noble Lords will not mind if I speak about Article 18 closer to home, like the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate.
The Jewish community has a strong connection with the Convention on Human Rights. The first draft was prepared by Eleanor Roosevelt. Its second draft and the underlying structure were prepared by René Cassin, a French jurist and the son of a Jewish family. What I did not know—and I am indebted to a briefing from Rabbi Lea Muehlstein—was that in 1945 he founded the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations, which was dedicated to providing encouragement from a Jewish perspective to a nascent UN human rights system. There is an organisation named in his honour, which continues his work today, promoting and protecting universal rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values. So, from the start, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was embraced by Jewish people.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others have recounted, some religious groups preach fundamentalism. Some religious teachers think that Article 18 permits religious law to take precedence over civil law. Jews faced this dilemma as far back as the 14th century. Then rabbis decided that the law of the land is the law. They dictated that religious practices must not be in contravention of the law of the state. Article 18 brings this up to date, allowing spiritual and religious self-fulfilment for all faiths. However, there are fundamentalists today in all religions who do not accept this. That is why, to counter this, here and elsewhere in Europe government and local authorities have to make sure that no group is excluded. No one should be left out of housing policy, employment policy, education policy, welfare, skills training and all the other parts of a civilised society.
There is another way that this Government can help Article 18 to flourish in Europe: they can stop confusing the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union in order to placate Eurosceptics. All members of the European Union are bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but that itself is based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which belongs to the Council of Europe. Withdrawing from the European Union has nothing to do with deporting radical preachers or giving prisoners the vote. Will the Minister tell us whether, to satisfy Eurosceptics, the Prime Minister is considering withdrawing from the European convention, or passing a law limiting its powers in the United Kingdom? Or are we going to have our own Bill of Rights, which I believe is being concocted by a group of Conservative lawyers? For all of us in Europe who value the freedoms we have under Article 18, any of these alternatives would be a disaster. Not only would they undermine our position under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but picking and choosing which bits of human rights law we like and which we do not would inevitably lead to the suggestion that the way to deal with fundamentalism and radical fundamental preachers is to withdraw from Article 18.
Last week, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a secular think tank of which I have the honour to be the honorary president, published its research on the perceptions and experiences of anti-Semitism among Jews in this country. The report stressed that in general most Jews in Britain feel comfortable in the UK with their Jewishness and with their Britishness in spite of a perceived rise in anti-Semitism. Although they may not know it, this feeling of comfort is due in large part to the benefits granted by the state, as laid out in Article 18. Let us keep it that way for the benefit of all faiths.
Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (CB):
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate so inspiringly.
I have no strongly held religious beliefs but I feel lucky that I can stand up in our Parliament’s second Chamber and proclaim what I do or do not believe. But, more than that, I can link on my blog to my short speech today without any fear of reprisal. I can tweet, I can put it on Facebook and, if I am feeling particularly sociable, on Tumblr as well, all of which I can do without fear of any consequence.
As with so many areas that your Lordships’ House tackles, technology is changing the landscape. Human rights and freedom of expression are no exception. When Article 18 of the UN declaration was created, there was no way that we could have conceived of the future connectivity of the world. I make a plea that we do not forget the vital importance of these new technology platforms and that we continue to champion their availability. An open internet ensures that people are able to share views, get support and reveal abuses of freedom. I also caution, as we come to understand this brave new world, that there are many risks to navigate.
I asked my wise Twitter followers for examples of where technology had enabled religious freedoms. One story hit home. A young man, who asked to remain anonymous, found me to tell me that he was a gay Christian in Zimbabwe and felt worthless—that was until he got connected. He then found many digital communities all over the world where he could talk about the complex issues that he faced. I was touched that he wanted to tell his story to me in particular because he had seen on the BBC news website that this Chamber had passed the gay marriage legislation.
People find solace and relief in the networks of the online world. Take the example of the girls snatched by Boko Haram or the tragedy of Meriam Ibrahim. Such incidents spread around the world with a pace and scale that was unimaginable before. Just this morning I was reading that journalists are being informed from the depths of Gaza by Twitter. It seems that you can hardly be a self-respecting religious leader without active social media management. The Pope has 4.2 million Twitter followers and the Dalai Lama has 9.4 million. I hope that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is not dispirited with his 60,000.
Religion takes many forms online. There is a page on Facebook for the Bible, with more than 4.5 million followers. God Wants You to Know is an app that has 2 million active monthly users. Perhaps my favourite are ads that are now being bought around the web saying “pray for an atheist”, encouraging people to do just that. I found examples as diverse as a nun who tweets from her silent order, a global group of Jesuits and a portal for Mormons.
I believe that we cannot debate Article 18 without also making sure that we are demanding a free and open internet. No Government should be allowed to shut down the platforms that enable people to express themselves. There are currently 44 countries worldwide that are censoring the internet, and this is immensely serious. It is perhaps no surprise that the five worst-performing countries against the criterion of an “open and free” internet, as mapped by the Web Foundation, are Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, Yemen and Qatar. In China, during peaceful protests by law-abiding Muslims in the north-west provinces in 2009, the Government shut down Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In 2009, Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali attempted to ban Facebook but, as we know, 18 months later, activist youths employed that tool in the beginnings of their revolution in the so-called Arab spring.
The global connectivity that we now enjoy can deliver enormous gains in freedom of speech and belief. However, it would be naive of me to suggest that it is not also leading to a far more complex and interlinked world of extremist behaviour. I emphasise that I believe that the vast majority of activity online is benign, but we have only to look at the very effective way that ISIS in Iraq has used technology to push out its twisted messages, as well as raise money, to see the other side of the freedoms of the web.
However, I urge policymakers to be cautious. Surely it is always better to err on the side of freedom of speech and to tread lightly and carefully. Of course, we must prosecute people who fall foul of international law, but I would hate to see a world where expressing religious views in the digital sphere, which some people find unacceptable, might lead to a knock on your physical door. We in this country are mercifully far away from that scenario but many people are not.
Viscount Bridgeman (Con):
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his masterly—if deeply worrying—overview of this problem. Article 18 speaks to the very core of who we are and, indeed, is an essential component of our identities as human beings. We are having this debate against the dreadful news that for the first time in the Christian era there are now no Christians at all in Mosul. This is perhaps mitigated in some small part by the welcome news of the safe arrival in Rome this morning of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death in Sudan.
An illustration of how the religious freedom problem in India criss-crosses all faiths is the persecution in India of the Dalit community, formerly known as “the untouchables”. They are persecuted not only if they convert to Islam but also if they convert to Christianity. As many noble Lords have said, freedom of religion or belief ensures that we are not compelled to believe anything that we do not want to, taking agnostic or atheistic positions if we choose. It is important that Article 18 does not stand alone. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear on this. Freedom of opinion or expression, freedom of association or assembly, and freedom of religion or belief are three strands that together make up that greater freedom, vested in human dignity, to which all people of good will aspire.
Around the world, sadly we see conflict situations where respect for freedom or belief has to be the crucial element in any sustainable peace. Reference has already been made to the current crisis in Iraq, the conflict in Rakhine State in Burma, and post-conflict situations such as Sri Lanka, to name only a few. There are currently two glaring cases of abuse of or contempt for Article 18 in North Korea and Eritrea, to which the noble Lord referred. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government are doing their utmost to secure implementation of the recommendations of the UN commission on North Korea and will support the UN commission of inquiry on Eritrea announced earlier this year. It is only by ensuring that Article 18 remains firmly on the agenda, and by seeking to tackle violations of it in a systematic fashion, that we can hope to have some impact on the many desperate situations faced by so many in the world today.
What steps can we take? Religious tolerance for those of us living in the United Kingdom very much begins at home. I was interested in the references by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and my noble friend Lord Patten to Magna Carta, which plays such a great part in American culture as well as our own. This country has a proud record of tolerance. It sets an example possibly more appreciated by our neighbours than we sometimes realise. I note the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, lest we get too smug; the noble Lord, Lord Singh, made reference to this; and I was deeply moved by what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, as to his origins. The tradition of your Lordships’ House, part of the bricks and mortar of this place, is that a speaker is willed by the House, whatever his or her political views, to give of his or her best. My predecessor in this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, has given an interesting sideline on the internet implications of this.
This tolerance by example needs to be carried out into the wider world of Article 18, to be raised wherever possible as a high priority at bilateral and multilateral levels. I am pleased to see that the FCO’s latest democracy and human rights report states that,
“every minister … is an ambassador for religious freedom”.
That action is being taken to educate those within the department and across government on how better to tackle these issues—again, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to this. It is also important that the European Union speaks, for once, with one voice in implementing its guidelines on freedom of religion and belief, and I would welcome an update on progress from my noble friend the Minister.
In conclusion, I refer to the work of the office of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who is not in his place. I understand that, despite a reported shortage of funding for his department, he has nevertheless championed, in addition to his own brief, some sensitive but important issues, including women’s rights. Here, again, I would welcome an update from my noble friend the Minister.
Lord Lea of Crondall (Lab):
My Lords, I find this a very troubling debate. The situation is getting worse and we do not know what to do about it. I begin by quoting the special rapporteur’s report last year, which states:
“In practice, manifestations of collective religious hatred frequently overlap with national, racial, ethnic or other forms of hatred, and in many situations it may seem impossible to clearly separate these phenomena. As a result, the label ‘religion’ can sometimes be imprecise and problematic when used to describe complex phenomena and motives of collective hatred. Nevertheless it remains obvious that religions and beliefs can serve as powerful demarcators of ‘us-versus-them’ groupings. Unfortunately, there are many examples testifying to this destructive potential of religion. At the same time, one should always bear in mind that anti-hatred movements exist within all religions and that most adherents of the different religious and belief traditions are committed to practising their faith as a source of peace, charity and compassion, rather than of hostility and hatred”.
What can we say? Where is the new intellectual paradigm, if I may call it that, to reconcile this vast contradiction between what is professed as the peaceful role of religion and the growth of this demagoguery and hatred? I believe that socioeconomic inequality and population growth have something to do with it; and I wish that the Roman Catholic Church would move in the direction in which the Pope seems to be going on the question of birth control. That is because many of the problems are in socioeconomic groups C, D and E on a world scale—in other words, in poor and poorer countries.
We will be accused of imperialism if we try to, as it were, lay down the law. That is extremely frustrating, possibly exasperating. So we have to ask why the United Nations cannot take stronger steps. I ask the Minister: what initiatives can the Foreign Office, in conjunction with Europe or otherwise, take? I speak as a middle-of-the-road member of the Church of England—perhaps we all ought to put our cards on the table. How can we, in our tradition, get better adherence mechanisms? There was something called the Rabat Plan of Action, but what sort of brainstorming can the Foreign Office put into achieving stronger adherence mechanisms in relation to the reports and findings of the special rapporteur? When push comes to shove, the question is: how can the big nations of the world simply ignore these things? It is a tricky political problem but we have to be a bit franker about it. One of the excellent briefing notes from the Library states that Article 18 is now an orphan. I am afraid that that rings a bell, does it not?
We all want to be tolerant but we do not want to be tolerant of other people’s intolerance. We know this in our religious traditions. There has always been—as many of us were brought up to believe—a belief that our religion had the exclusive knowledge of the truth, and that other religious beliefs were next door to apostasy. We have to become more secular at the same time as recognising that religion has more to contribute in the world. My noble friend Lord Desai was getting near to a good point. The post-Marxist analysis suggests that we no longer have the struggle of capital and labour, nor do we have the struggle of the colonised versus the coloniser. Does, as the rapporteur says, the identifier become something against the other? It is impossible in this debate to say anything useful in five minutes but I hope that the Foreign Office will think about what stronger adherence mechanisms could be promulgated for a world discussion? I hope that we can get India, China and other great nations on board to do something like that because I cannot see any other way forward.
Lord Morrow (DUP):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate.
I begin by affirming the great importance of the provision of an article in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that explicitly and specifically protects religious freedom. Back in the 1960s, it was common to hear academics suggest that religion was generally on the wane and that we were moving towards a more secularised world. While church attendance may be less than what it was in the United Kingdom, globally the world is becoming if anything more, not less, religious. In this regard we have seen an explosion of academic interest in religion and desecularisation. In this context, Article 18 is more important than ever, and I pay special tribute to the Lebanese philosopher, Professor Charles Malik, Lebanon’s first ambassador to the United Nations, who drafted and championed Article 18.
I now turn to the application of Article 18 domestically. I would like to focus particularly on the second limb, namely,
“freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
In Christian theology, belief without action is meaningless. We are told in the letter of James—I make no apology for quoting from the Bible because discussions of religious freedom are meaningless if not rooted in an appreciation of real and relevant theology—that,
“faith without works is dead”.
The Christian understanding of worship as living out one’s faith 24/7 and of rejecting the idea that one is just a Christian on Sunday is absolutely central to what it means to be a Christian. This was set out so very clearly by William Wilberforce in the 1797 book that he called his manifesto, in which he explained how real Christianity means transforming belief into action across the whole of life, including politics.
In this context, I have to say that I very much agree with the American first lady, Michelle Obama, when she said:
“Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon … It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … especially in those quiet moments, when the spotlight’s not on us, and we’re making those daily choices about how to live our lives”.
In short, “doing God”, to coin a phrase, involves doing.
Secularists will generously tell us of their fierce commitment to religious freedom and then, in a move that makes them sound particularly supportive, say they believe that freedom of religious belief is an absolute right. In return for offering an absolute right to belief, however, they go on to argue that if ever there is a conflict between the right to manifest religious belief and any other right, the manifestation of religious belief should be curtailed. The truth is that the notion that providing an absolute right to religious belief in this country constitutes something meaningful and substantive is problematic on two bases. First, it means something only if you believe that the British state can get inside your head and prevent you believing what you believe, which does not seem likely. Secondly, it suggests that the centre of religious faith is belief and that one can constrain practice at will without placing religious liberty in jeopardy.
In order to see just how ridiculous this is, we must return to the active principle and that clear statement from the New Testament that,
“faith without works is dead”.
The Bible does not say that faith without works is truncated or diminished. It says that it is actually negated. There can be no faith without works. Mindful of this, it is absolutely right that Article 18 is very clear that the manifestation of religious belief is very broad based.
As I look around Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, I see many wonderful examples of people of faith properly exercising their religious freedom in both belief and practice. Leading politicians have not been slow to affirm this with respect to welfare service provision, as indeed they should if they take their Article 18 obligations seriously. The willingness of politicians to affirm the right to manifest belief, however, is, I am afraid, rather selective. I say this with regret, not because I want to suggest that, if people claim that an action is in some way related to their faith, they should be allowed to proceed regardless—that would clearly be dangerous. Rather, I am suggesting that, if we are to respect the place of religion in our society, and the place of Article 18, we must make space for mainstream religious practice: both that which the secular commentariat agrees with and that which makes them uncomfortable. Sadly, this is not happening.
I would like to have said much more, but time has caught up with me. I would like to have said something in relation to Nigeria, but I totally agree with, and want to associate myself with, the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on this matter.
Lord Elton (Con):
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, I would like much more time, but would have liked it to prepare what I have to say. I do not think I have ever embarked on a debate and learnt so much about what is going on in the world that I did not know. I knew the generality, but we now have the particularity, which is very stark. It is interesting that we make this assault on this difficult problem seven days after what was probably the best and longest debate this House has held, on the Assisted Dying Bill, where we looked at death on the individual scale. It seems that we are now turning the microscope round and using it as a telescope to look at death on the ethnic and global scale. The two chime together. It is a grim thought that this current of dark, heartless evil runs through the whole human race and through every faith at some stage in its development.
I approach this with perhaps an unusual level of humility as I listen to the expertise and the visible bravery and courage of others in the debate. First, I would like to leave in your Lordships’ minds—this may puzzle your Lordships until I get to the end—the thought that, when the Syrian disaster first began to grab our attention, it was clear, although not apparently recognised in the echelons of power, that all the minorities who were threatened actually trusted Assad and, rightly, feared the rebels.
We have had a number of approaches this morning and this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Anderson, who is not in his place at the moment, started by saying that peace depends on building bridges between faiths. He was echoed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, who pointed out that it would be extremely helpful if, at the local and particularly the national level, all sorts of faiths represented in a troubled area could get together to show what was happening and to condemn it. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed to where this is happening at the bottom of the pile, although involving people at the top. It is being done by the astonishing—and in future, I hope, saintly—Canon Andrew White, who is living out a very frail life, in extreme danger, bringing polar opposites in Iraq together. That is one element that we need to pursue.
Next, I echo my noble friend Lady Berridge, who pointed out the importance of religious education. It may amuse her to know that in the flotsam and jetsam that will eventually wash up on some distant Whitehall desk is a tiny paragraph or two of mine from the Queen’s Speech debate—not yet answered—on the similar point that religious education is needed to underpin the civics and the civil behaviour of our population. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, was looking for some means of controlling micro-oppression, as I might call it. What does that is understanding, and education is where you begin to build it.
As has been described by many noble Lords, we are watching a forest fire. My noble friend Lord Patten said it was spreading to Indonesia, but we need to look the other way, too, as it is spreading here. Fires burn in different ways: a heath fire can burn underground for weeks and burst out long after the fire brigade has gone home and gone on holiday. It can also burn fiercely, brightly and scorchingly. That is what is happening.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, used an interesting phrase. He said that Article 18 cannot be enforced and that, if we are honest, we need arms, I think he said. However, we cannot go down that road for reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Singh, pointed out and which our Lord pointed out to Peter somewhere near Caesarea Philippi, because, in the end, it brings evil in its train. However, we can at least deny to the forces of evil some of their materiel, or the weapons of war, which are now reaching a serious scale, for instance in Nigeria.
My noble friend Lady Cox pointed the finger at, among others, Saudi Arabia. That happens in other areas, too. Saudi Arabia was among the first to support the rebels in Syria. Has the time come not only for me to sit down—as my noble friend is pointing out—but for my noble friend and his colleagues to look carefully at whether the whole arrangement of our alliances in the Middle East and north Africa should be considered and, probably, drastically revised?
Lord Clarke of Hampstead (Lab):
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and make the comment that when he and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, bring these issues to the House, all of us learn something. I am sure we are all grateful for the work that they do, not only here at home but where these problems exist.
I will speak about the abuse of human rights in Iran. Every so often, we get a chance in the House to ask Questions. I have repeatedly asked about the plight of the people in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty; perhaps the Minister can give us an update of what is going on in those areas. Can the Minister also say, in his reply, how many times the United Nations, through the Security Council or other forums, has condemned the brutality and inhumanity of the mullahs in Iran? I will also speak today about the persecution of Christians.
This week in Iran, on Monday, the mullahs’ regime publicly flogged five people, with 70 lashes each, in Nobahar Junction, Azadi Square, Ferdowsi Square and Motahari Junction. In yet another brutal measure, on 14 July, the criminal agents of the mullahs put out the cigarette of a Christian on his lips—stubbed out a cigarette—and beat him savagely. From 11 to 13 July, five more were flogged in the cities of Babolsar and Shiraz. Three of them allegedly received lashes for not observing the fast during Ramadan and two were accused of stealing. These acts are perpetrated in the name of religious leaders—fundamentalists and those who rule by fear.
How different it is now from the outpourings of support for President Rouhani when he won the sham election last year. Since he won that election, 800 people have been executed. The litany goes on and on. In the debate this afternoon, I will talk about two young Iranian women, Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh. They were born into Muslim families in Iran and describe a period of questioning and exploring other religions which led to their conversions to Christianity in 1999. They met one another in 2005 in Turkey while studying theology and felt called to return to Iran to share the gospel with fellow Iranians.
Upon their return, the two women began a ministry together which involved Bible distribution and holding secret house church meetings for prostitutes and young people. This work eventually drew the attention of the Iranian authorities and they were arrested in 2009. Their initial detention lasted for 14 days during which they were interrogated, threatened with physical torture and put under pressure to give details of their contacts. The charges levelled against them included apostasy, for which they were placed in Evin Prison and faced the very real threat of death by hanging. Maryam and Marziyeh spent the following nine months in the terrible, infamous Evin Prison, subject to regular interrogation and under pressure to recant, which they consistently refused to do. Considered infidels, they were denied medical treatment and access to other facilities. Despite the harsh conditions they faced, the women were able to give witness to fellow prisoners and the guards, and show them their belief in God.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords have referred to the situation in Mosul. I am confident that all noble Lords will be pleased to hear what Maryam Rajani, the leader of the Iranian Council of Resistance, said this week. Speaking two days ago about the stance taken by the Association of Muslim Scholars, which condemned aggression against Christians, she said, “It was a reasonable stance that challenges fundamentalism and religious extremism”. She added, “Aggression against Christians is unIslamic”, and I hope that message gets through. After 259 days without bail, Maryam and Marziyeh will welcome somebody speaking out for Christians in Iran. Six months after their release, those two ladies went to live in the United States. They have dedicated themselves to sharing their experience in a book, Captive in Iran, which I recommend.
Finally, I implore the Minister to ask our recently appointed Foreign Secretary to re-examine the Government’s relationship with the Iranian mullahs. Instead of talking about reducing the pretty ineffective sanctions, we should be seeking firmer sanctions to help those who are suffering.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne (LD):
Tolerance, respect for the other, care for the stranger without the gate: these are the core British values that are enshrined and honoured by our common rule of law. The careful wording of Article 18 meticulously reflects these values and encapsulates our worldwide common right to worship as we wish. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, so powerfully proclaims, this right is under extraordinary attack, so too are our British values, entwined as they are with the article. We have an enemy here in the UK, and it is the same enemy that has erupted in parts of Syria, in Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq and elsewhere.
What is our enemy? We—Jews, Christians and Muslims—are all people of the book. Our capacity to co-operate, share, live, study and work together derives from that. Our common enemy, the Salafi, do not agree. For the Salafi, we are the enemy and must convert or die. The Salafi identify themselves as Muslims, but there are many different strands of Islam. Some may be hostile to other strands or other faiths, but Salafist thinking mutates disastrously to destruction, dominance and executions. It is important to distinguish between these common strands of Islam. Words that are thrown around so loosely now, such as “Islamist”, “fundamentalist Muslim” and so on, are not the Salafists. It is the Salafists and their cousins the Wahhabis who are our common enemy and the enemy of other faiths as well.
Let me give an example. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke strongly about the situation in north Iraq. I speak about Mosul, which I know well. What is it like today with ISIS—that armed group of Salafists—having taken over the city and the region? Civil society has gone. All social life has disappeared from the streets. No family parks are allowed to function. No play areas for children can be opened. The coffee shops have shut. There is no judiciary. The ruler is the executioner. All minorities are subject to displacement, assault and execution. So, too, are the majorities. The holy shrines of prophets are being destroyed. All the mosques of other Sunni strands of Islam—that is to say, the non-jihadi Salafist group—have been taken over. The clerks have either been assassinated or persecuted. The synagogues have been taken over as well. The Shia are under the threat of killing wherever they are. They are the majority in the country. They are being executed. The Yezidi have been displaced from their homes and places of work. The Shabak groups are obliged to leave their areas. Christians have been turned out forcibly. They have had a special favour; they have been warned and told to leave.
The Shia are automatically executed when their names betray their strand of Islam. Anyone who is not Sunni jihadi—Salafi—must hide or run away. Women are not allowed to leave their homes without a niqab covering the whole of their face and should be accompanied by a man. That is not Islam. Show me the verse in the holy Koran that says that must be the case. You cannot find it. Public services are fractionally running, but there is separation of the sexes. The management team of your local health centre, if it still exists, is from ISIS. The directors-general of health and education are now prisoners in their own homes. They are Sunni. The health facilities are being run by few staff, with the majority remaining inside their homes in order to stay alive. Those who are working are uncertain about any salaries. Even worse, who is going to provide them with the drugs and fresh equipment when their stocks run out, which is happening? There will be epidemics, including cholera, which was in the area very recently. The new rule applied to schools and hospitals allocates a day for men and another for women, so that the two genders are not in the facility at the same time.
Is there not familiarity with the situation that was uncovered this week by Her Majesty’s inspectorate in its report on schools in Birmingham? Examples of this include altering the curriculum and schemes of work so that children are not allowed to hear musical instruments or to sing and changing the art curriculum so that they may see and draw only designs but not full faces or images. I recall having that argument with Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Indeed, in 2007 the Muslim Council stated that girls in schools should be covered except for their hands and faces. I cannot find the verse that tells me that that should be so. There is no Christmas, despite the fact that the birth of Christ is in the Koran and Jesus is a prophet in Islam.
What is the Islam that I know and love? It talks of music:
“’Tis said, the pipe and lute that charm our ears
Derive their melody from rolling spheres;
But Faith, o’erpassing speculation’s bound,
Can see what sweetens every jangled sound.
We, who are parts of Adam, heard with him
The song of angels and of seraphim.
Music uplifts the soul to realms above.
The ashes glow, the latent fires increase:
We listen and are fed with joy and peace”.
What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that true Islam, like true Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, is firmly embedded in the school curriculum, taught, implemented and demonstrated? Her Majesty’s Government must give an answer.
Lord Sacks (CB):
My Lords, I, too, am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for allowing us this opportunity to share our concerns about one of the most profoundly disturbing developments in our time. Seldom have I heard a more searing and devastating set of testimonies than I have heard today of the evils currently being committed in the name of the God of love and peace and compassion.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, Soviet communism collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War came to an end. Many believed that we were about to witness throughout the world the spread of market economics, liberal democracy and the kind of tolerances we associate with both. Today, we know it did not happen that way. We have seen instead a new tribalism, leading to massacres in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, the division and balkanisation of societies along religious lines, and the return of the one thing that could take humanity back to the dark ages, namely the use of religion as the robe of sanctity to disguise and legitimate the naked pursuit of power.
The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time, and I am appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked. We have heard about this from many eloquent speakers today. What is happening to Christians in these places is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. We must not forget either, as others have said, that the vast majority of victims of Islamist violence and terror are Muslim, and our hearts go out to them too, as they do to members of all other persecuted groups such as the Baha’i in Iran, and so many others.
I wish I did not have to speak about the position of Jewish communities throughout the world but, sadly, I do. In the past few weeks mobs have assaulted Jews in France, attacking synagogues and setting fire to Jewish-owned shops. There were attacks in Berlin. In November 2013, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report showing that two-thirds of the Jews in Europe regard anti-Semitism as a significant factor in their lives, three-quarters believe that it has worsened significantly in the past five years, one-third have personally experienced some form of harassment, and they are deeply afraid for the future. Forgive me if I say that I did not expect, 120 years after the Dreyfus case and 70 years after the Holocaust, that the cry of “Death to the Jews” would be heard again in the streets of France and Germany.
In all this we recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one. We see how the wilful confusion of religion and politics allows soluble political problems to be turned into insoluble religious ones. We witness the ignorance that allows people to mistake one strand within a faith for the whole of that faith, and we pay a high price for our fascination with extremists. It is the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.
That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself. I believe that God himself weeps at the evils being committed in His name. Let us urge, as strongly as we can, the worldwide implementation of Article 18 as one of the great challenges of our time so that we can all exercise our fundamental right to live our faith without fear.
Lord Bach (Lab):
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the expert speakers in this debate and a particular privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, with his tremendous reputation. His speech today was full of wisdom and wise words, and it was excellent that he was here to take part.
This has been a major debate on a major issue of our times, instigated, if I may say so, by a major player in your Lordships’ House. Only two weeks ago we were debating the World Service and the British Council. Yesterday, as the House has heard, we were debating the United Nations commission of inquiry into North Korea, and today we debate an issue of fundamental importance to the type of world we want. What these debates have in common, of course, is that they were all secured by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. They also have in common an emphasis on human rights and decent values in a very imperfect world. The House and the wider public owe the noble Lord a great deal.
The central issue of today’s debate is, surely, the continued and increasing breaches of Article 18 in a large number of countries where Governments have a theoretical commitment to freedom of religion or belief. Governments have turned a blind eye or, in some cases, encouraged outrages against those who have dared to remain true to their faith or, even, to their lack of faith.
Recently, his Holiness Pope Francis said that there were more martyrs today than in the first centuries of Christianity, which, we were all taught at school, were scarred by blood and brutality. Almost every week, we hear of new outrages committed against people of faith. In our minds today are the Christians who have had to flee Mosul as they faced wicked threats and treatment from ISIS. Indeed, shocking news is coming through as we speak. The BBC is reporting that Islamist group ISIS has ordered women aged between 11 to 46 years in Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation. If that is true it has the capacity to shock even us, given all that we have heard today. There are, and have been for days, reports that last weekend ISIS was putting on Christian doors in Mosul in Arabic, the letter “N”, meaning Nazarene, to point out where Christians lived. It does not need me to say the parallels that there are with the last 100 years in Nazi Germany.
This is all in a part of the world where Christianity began and where, even under despotic rule, whether it be the Ottoman Empire or more recent dictators, Christians have been allowed to practise their religion without hindrance. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, wrote graphically in yesterday’s Times reminding us that the number of Christians in Mosul has gone from 30,000 to zero. Of course, there are many other examples of this, not just in the troubled Middle East, but around the world. It was estimated that one-third of countries in the world had a high or very high level of government restrictions on freedom of religion and that 76% of the world’s population, calculated as 5.3 billion people, live in such countries.
The questions for us must include why, in a more globalised world, where people are able to mix, meet and travel more freely than ever before in human history, there is now more, not less, intolerance. What can we do about it? The All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge—it is a privilege to hear her today—in its paper on Article 18, talked with great force and made the point that although Article 18 remains the single most significant statement of the international community’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief, it is hamstrung in practice because it has never been the subject of a focused United Nations convention, unlike the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, and others.
Professor Malcolm Evans, who I believe assisted the Committee, argues that there has been evidence of intention of creating such a convention, but it has not been achieved and, to use his words, is still “on hold” after 45 years. That is why the document that the committee of the noble Baroness produced is called Article 18: An Orphaned Right. The Government are rightly praised for describing freedom of religion or belief as,
“one of the Government’s key human rights priorities”.
It is good to hear that every Minister will be an ambassador for religious freedom when he or she goes abroad, and that the Government have a strategy for promoting this particular freedom. Indeed, one can see the influence of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, in these developments. Although it is always an enormous pleasure to debate with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and I am delighted to see him in his place, it is in one way a shame that the noble Baroness is not here today because this is really her territory. It seems to the Opposition that she has made a real mark on this subject in her years in office. The recommendations in the all-party report are very important. It would be good to hear from the Minister when he sums up what responses to them he can give on behalf of the Government.
Many countries are formally in breach of Article 18. Some have been referred to in today’s debate. Of course, what is happening in Syria and Iran, where Sunni is set against Shia and vice versa, shows us that interfaith behaviour is entirely relevant to Article 18. Historically, Christianity has hardly set a good example over the centuries—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. But that is no reason now for not arguing strongly that there is an urgent need for Article 18 to be complied with around the world.
It is interesting to note that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which calls in the same way for freedom of faith and belief, seems on balance to have been much better observed over the years than Article 18, which we are debating today. Surely that is partly because there is an effective legal remedy if Article 9 of the ECHR is breached. Article 9 does not stand alone; it is embedded in practical law. That must surely be a lesson for us to learn.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the speech made by my right honourable friend Douglas Alexander on this subject following an article he wrote in the Daily Telegraph last Christmas. I will quote from it but time is very short. He just said:
“It is simply wrong for any faith to be persecuted”,
and that to say so,
“is not to support one faith over another—it is to say that persecution and oppression of our fellow human beings in the name of any god or ideology is never acceptable and is morally repugnant”.
Surely he is right and action is necessary. We look forward to hearing what the Government propose. Of course, the House looks forward to hearing from the Minister.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD):
My Lords, I am afraid that in the very short time I have, because we are running a little in this debate, it will be impossible to respond to everybody on every point that has been made. I apologise for that.
I was also going to apologise that, in this instance, I am summing up on something that is so very much the subject of my noble friend Lady Warsi. In preparing for this debate, I read the speeches she made in Georgetown, at the Pontifical Academy in Rome, in Oman and Kuala Lumpur. After that, my high respect for her rose further. It is partly because of who she is and where she comes from that she is able to speak with such conviction to diverse audiences and have them accept what she says. In particular, she talks about her background as the child of a mixed Sunni/Shia family and her comfortableness about being a British Muslim. In understanding religion, she quoted in one speech an imam who taught her that your religion flows across the bed of the society in which you live. That is a lovely concept. Therefore, to be a British Muslim is of course a little different from being an Omani or Saudi Muslim, and the same applies also for many other faiths. I pay very considerable tribute to the work my noble friend has done and is doing.
She certainly contributed to upgrading the Foreign Office’s emphasis and understanding of the importance of religion. The Human Rights and Democracy Report for this year has a very useful section on freedom of religion and belief which says,
“Baroness Warsi has made freedom of religion or belief an FCO priority, and now every minister at the FCO is an ambassador for religious freedom, raising and promoting these issues in the countries with which they engage”.
It goes on to talk about training and seminars within the FCO and briefings for representatives elsewhere. My noble friend Lord Cormack asked for a specific FCO envoy on religion. The problem that other states have found with appointing a specific envoy on religion is that a large number of countries then refuse to accept visits from him or her. However, everyone having this as part of what they do and say helps in the many difficult countries with which we must have this dialogue.
Of course, my noble friend Lady Warsi also worked with the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and one must have dialogue with a range of organisations around the world. As the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, will know, the UK currently holds the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Sir Andrew Burns has done some excellent work in that respect. He, my noble friend Lady Warsi and others have also encouraged various different faith communities to think about genocide and holocaust as something which moves across different faiths and has been a tragedy for many of them. In recent months, the commemoration of the tragedy of Srebrenica is very much part of all that.
I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry that the reshuffle will in no sense affect this emphasis. This Government, as my noble friend Lady Warsi said, “does God” because we recognise that religion, power, faith and ideology all flow in and out of each other. Religion can be misused as a force for evil as well as good.
As most noble Lords will know, my noble friend Lady Warsi convened a group within the Foreign Office on freedom of religion and belief, which includes people from a range of different faiths—and from none, because we emphasise that Article 18 includes the right to believe, to change your religion or not to believe. It is a statement of religious toleration and of toleration of thought altogether. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, suggested that the United Kingdom was on its way to withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and then, perhaps in time, from the UN declaration on human rights, or at least from Article 18. All I can say is: not this coalition Government, whatever a future Government might do.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to our work with the Arab League and others on freedom of religion. We work with as many international organisations as we can on all these issues.
We heard in this debate a huge range of concerns about attacks on many different religions in many different countries. The most immediate concerns we all have are about the attacks on Christian communities across the Middle East, the region from which the three great monotheistic religions grew and within which different faiths have managed to co-exist, with occasional disasters, without too much hatred over so many centuries. We also heard about south Asia, from which a number of other global faiths emerged, where to our horror we see Buddhists attacking Muslims and Hindus. There is also the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that we see across the Middle East. We know that religion is used in a whole host of ways across a great many countries.
Religion has linked historically with power and has also—sorry; I have lost one of my pages. Religion was abused as part of the way in which states established themselves, such as forced conversions and killings of religious minorities. When I read of the way that ISIS is behaving in Mosul, I recalled that in 1870, when the tsarist Russians conquered the north Caucasus, they offered the Circassians and the Chechens the choice of conversion or expulsion. That is the origin of the Chechen and Circassian communities in Aleppo, Amman and elsewhere. It is one of the reasons why the king of Jordan has just visited Grozny to talk to the local Chechens about some of those links.
We all have to recognise that tolerance takes a long time to develop. Religion and modernity have had a difficult relationship. Indeed, the origins of religious fundamentalism were in the 19th century United States, as rural communities came to terms with the tremendous problems of transition to urban and modern life. We have seen that turbulence now running across the Middle East and elsewhere, where the speed of change from traditional society to modernity is so much greater and where, therefore, the fundamentalist reaction is often so much stronger.
We are conscious that the resistance to a liberal and open society has been there in a great many religions. I recall the papal bull that denounced liberalism and all its works in the 1870s. To some extent, the disillusion with Arab nationalism and the collapse of the secular faith of Marxist communism have left a hard-line version of political Islam as an all-enveloping ideology for the discontented, dispossessed and frustrated young men of so many countries, including some of our communities in this country.
A number of noble Lords have talked about the United Kingdom as an example. Among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, talked about the importance of remembering that religious toleration begins at home. I am not entirely sure that we should quote Magna Carta in our defence. I know that Article 1 of Magna Carta says that the English church is to be free, but that is the defence of the organised religion, not of the individual. It is also the defence of the church and all its privileges from the king. That is not my understanding of Article 18, so we need to careful about quoting Magna Carta.
The Lord Bishop of Coventry:
I interpreted it as the seed from which has grown the tree and a proper universal application of that principle of seeking for religion not to be controlled by the state.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire:
My Lords, it was a very small seed and, sadly, the tree—looking back at British history—grew rather slowly. We had a civil war and quite a lot of killing of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants and others on the way to the achievement of the religious toleration that we have.
I grew up as a Protestant and I was instinctively anti-Catholic. I did not have the category of Jewish in my mind so I had no concept of whether I should be anti-Jewish, pro-Jewish or what. I slowly learnt not to be anti-Catholic and so one has moved. Over the past two to three generations in this country, the levels of intolerance have, happily, gone down a great deal. When I occasionally go to services in Westminster Abbey where I was a choirboy, and where you would never have seen a Catholic priest in the 1950s, I see not only representatives of the other Christian churches, but a range of other faiths represented: the Chief Rabbi, representatives of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and other communities. That is the way we should be going; interfaith dialogue and understanding in our schools and among different organised churches are what we should be doing to promote and defend an open society.
In particular, I regret that as regards what I think I learnt as a child about the three religions of the book—the Abrahamic faiths—we have lost some of that sense that the three great monotheistic religions belong together.
Lord Reid of Cardowan (Lab):
In the profound spirit of liberalism and ecumenicism that has pervaded his speech, could the Minister have a look at the rules concerning Catholic marriages in the Crypt?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire:
I was going to make another point, which is that we are all deeply aware at the present moment of the current conflicts in the Middle East, including between Israel and Palestine and the extent to which that spills over to some of the misunderstandings of our discontented young. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, that I went to address the Board of Deputies before the last election on behalf of my party and said, among other things, that we all have to understand that Jerusalem is a holy city for three faiths. I was heckled by someone who said, “No it isn’t. It’s the eternal city of the Jews”. We all recognise that there are some great sensitivities here, with different understandings of the past, and that what some call Judea and Samaria others call the West Bank and others call the Holy Land. They are matters that we cannot get away from and have to address.
There are many who do a lot of good work in that respect in the United Kingdom. I recall Tariq Ramadan, now on the panel of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, saying that he sees Europe as the society within which the necessary reconciliation between Islam and modernity will take place. Let us all work for that.
A large number of countries have been mentioned in the debate and it is impossible in these last few minutes—
Lord Clarke of Hampstead:
I wonder if I can help the Minister. Ten years ago, as a practising Roman Catholic, my wife and I renewed our marriage vows in St Mary Undercroft. We have not been able to do it this year for our diamond wedding anniversary, but that might alleviate some of the fears that some Peers have.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire:
I thank the noble Lord for that contribution.
The situation in Iran and across the Middle East, the question of south Asia, what is happening in Burma, Indonesia and the new laws set out in Brunei—a great many countries have been mentioned. Sadly, however, we have not mentioned the Central African Republic, where Christians, or people who call themselves and identify themselves as Christians, are killing Muslims, and people who call themselves Muslims are killing Christians. I regret to say that they are probably using the religious symbol as an excuse for competing with the others. We have to recognise that not just modernity, but rising population and shortage of resources fuel some of those conflicts that appear to be religious.
Lord Lea of Crondall:
The Minister will be aware that I was not the only one who asked a specific question about what steps the Foreign Office is considering, and whether there is any brainstorming there, as to how to strengthen the adherence to the famous article.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire:
My Lords, I have two minutes left, which is why I am attempting to run through this. I promise I will write to the noble Lord, in so far as I can. I have already explained that the Foreign Office is actively engaged in all of this in terms of internal education and our constant dialogue with others. We have, again, come back on to the Human Rights Council so we are working across the board on this issue.
The debate has demonstrated our concern with the large number of countries in which religious toleration is absent and where there is discrimination against minorities within each religion and against different religions from that which is the official religion of that country. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are actively concerned with this. We see it as something that the British Government must actively work on, at home and throughout the world, as one of the important ways in which we help to maintain our open and tolerant society and to strengthen those principles of liberal, open societies across the world.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, although I had the privilege of entering your Lordships’ House in 1997 as an independent Cross-Bencher, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and I first met—in what seems a far-off age—when I was president of the National League of Young Liberals. I immediately recognised that I had encountered someone who had an extraordinary breadth of knowledge of world affairs. But as befits a former cathedral chorister, as he has pointed out, he also has a great knowledge of the relationship between faith and politics. Although he is not the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to whom we have all paid tribute for the extraordinary work that she does in this area, we are all indebted to him for his reply today, and we look forward to the correspondence that will come from the detailed questions that have been raised.
I thank all noble Lords who have made such rich, eloquent and knowledgeable contributions to this debate. None of us could have known how topical and timely this balloted Motion would prove to be. Many have spoken from first-hand experience. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, set us off with a metaphor about the unleashing of a tiger, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, used a similar metaphor when he talked about the prairie fire that is likely to spread. Many noble Lords referred to the dangers of that fire burning closer to home, including the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson.
The Minister actually took only 15 of his allotted 20 minutes, and with one speaker struck off the list—
Lord Newby (LD):
My Lords, I inform the noble Lord that the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, took less than his time was because he did not have any more time than that to take.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
I am sorry, my Lords, but people stuck to their time limits and one noble Lord removed his name from the list, so there was some extra time. The courtesy of the House is all that I am trying to observe in thanking all those who have participated in this important debate.
Article 18 demands an end to suppression, persecution and gross injustice. It should be at the heart of our concerns, not an orphaned right.
The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Morris of Bolton) (Con):
My Lords, I apologise, but the time allotted for this debate has now elapsed and I must put the question.
British Parliament debates the United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report into Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea
Question for Short Debate
Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the work of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, on 21 March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a mandate to,
“investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability … for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity”.North Korea’s scant respect either for its own people or for the people and security of the region as a whole is underlined by the launching of artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, concomitant with the squandering of desperately needed resources that could be used to feed the millions of North Koreans who suffer acute malnutrition and chronic food shortages. Four times in the past two weeks alone, North Korea has test fired short-range missiles and rockets, and threatened a fourth nuclear test in violation of United Nations sanctions.
While 84% of North Korean households have borderline or poor food consumption, it is reported that in 2012 Kim Jong-un spent $1.3 billion on North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, in addition to $300 million on leisure facilities and nearly $700 million on luxury goods including watches, handbags and alcohol. Set against that, the findings of the commission of inquiry, which completed its investigation and released its findings last February, should be looked at from an accurate perspective. Its report detailed a truly shocking disregard for humanity, which included,
“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other grave sexual violence and persecution on political, religious and gender grounds”.The chairman of the commission, Mr Justice Michael Kirby, found many of these violations committed by the Government of North Korea to be,
“without parallel in the contemporary world”, and to constitute crimes against humanity.
It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that at every stage the Government of North Korea refused to co-operate with the commission’s investigation and have since dismissed the report as,
“a product of political confrontation and conspiracy”,
and rejected its findings.
During the four visits that I have made to North Korea, three of which were with my noble friend Lady Cox, I have been deeply impressed by the dignity and forbearance of the North Korean people, but equally dismayed and saddened by the hateful ideology that criminalises and brutalises its people.
Some North Koreans who have fled their country were able to testify at the Commission’s public hearings in Tokyo, Seoul, Washington DC and here in London. Some originally gave their testimonies to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I have chaired for the past decade. While mentioning the APPG, perhaps I may thank James Burt, its honorary secretary, for his work in preparing for today’s debate.
It hardly needs saying that the bravery of the testifying witnesses has been remarkable; one of them is with us today. Many have families in North Korea, who remain in constant fear of reprisals.
In breaking the wall of silence that surrounds the DPRK, those who have escaped—including 25,000 who now live in the Republic of Korea, and 700 or 800 who live in the United Kingdom—have been game changers.
As we meet today, 11 North Korean escapees are languishing in prisons in China’s Jilin province—a region I visited 18 months ago. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government would be willing to appeal to China to accept its obligations under international law and not return those escapees to North Korea, where they face persecution, torture and possible death.
I hope that China will give serious thought to relaxing its policy of repatriation, not least because the Commission of Inquiry’s report describes how pregnant women are forcibly aborted and their newborn babies killed if it is thought that mothers have “diluted” the Korean bloodline by bearing a child with a Chinese parent. Not only is this ugly racism, it is utterly lacking in humanity and deeply offensive to China.
For terrorised North Koreans and the international community alike, the Commission has marked a turning point. For too long, states have claimed that too little was known of the extent of North Korea’s crimes to justify action. In the words of Mr Justice Kirby:
“Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know…The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action”.
The findings detailed in the commission’s report stretch to well over 300 pages, and time does not permit a detailed overview. I know that other noble Lords will enlarge on some of these points but, in summary, the Commission found that the freedoms of thought, expression and religion were routinely and brutally curtailed in the North Korean state.
North Koreans are discriminated against on the basis of class, gender and disability. The vast majority of North Korean citizens are unable to leave their own country, choose where they live or decide where they work. The withholding of food by the North Korean state constitutes an explicit policy of enforced and prolonged starvation, which contributed to the deaths in the 1990s of at least 1 million people, with some estimating that as many as 2 million people died. Detention, torture and execution are established tools of social control. The abduction of foreign nationals has been routine. Up to 120,000 North Koreans face starvation, torture, forced labour, sexual violence and execution in the country’s political prison camps.
The Inquiry found evidence of crimes against humanity. One firm of celebrated lawyers also suggested that the evidence points to genocide against the country’s Christians—a point to which my noble friend Lady Cox will return. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames will refer to some of the other issues that have been raised in the report. One of its underreported aspects is gender-based crime against women; another is the indoctrination of children. I wonder whether violence against women was raised during the recent conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict.
One witness who fled North Korea told the Commission:
“You are brainwashed”,
“don’t know life outside. You are brainwashed from the time you know how to talk, about four years of age … North Korea is not open to the outside world”,but,
“is a fenced world … They want the people to be blind, deaf to the outside world, so that the people won’t know what is happening”.The CoI report challenges us to think about how we counter hateful propaganda and that wall of silence, and how we break the information blockade. This is why Mr Justice Kirby supports the extension of BBC World Service transmissions to the Korean peninsula. The All-Party Parliamentary Group has heard from groups that have successfully broadcast into the country, and also from North Koreans who escaped and who told of the importance of foreign broadcasts.
Only yesterday, along with other members of the group, I met with Diane Coyle, the acting chair of the BBC. I have reiterated on many occasions, as have other noble Lords, that it would cost only about £1 million to commit to broadcasting to North Korea, compared to DfID’s budget of £12 billion. Surely this is money that we can find, to at least try to help some of those who have escaped to become tomorrow’s journalists. Maybe that is an issue that the Minister could pursue with the BBC Media Action programme.
How do we intend to honour our obligations under Article 19 of the 1948 declaration if we are unwilling to break the information blockade? I have no problem with cultural programmes; but if that is all we do we will be failing North Korea. Instead of telling us about photographic exhibitions or cultural exchanges, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether any human rights projects, for instance, are going to be implemented in North Korea and how we will break the information blockade.
I was saddened that in a recent article a former FCO chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, Jim Hoare, questioned the place of human rights in our engagement with North Korea, claiming that,
“human rights issues have proved a complication”,to the UK’s cultural projects in North Korea, and that a,“modestly-successful parliamentary linkage seems to have more or less ceased because of the preoccupation with human rights of many British parliamentarians”.
It is the job of parliamentarians to be preoccupied with gross human rights violations, and I would hope that it is a preoccupation that the Government and their officials might share. Engagement with North Korea is not always the same as engagement with the North Korean state. The biggest improvements to the rights of North Koreans have come in spite of the North Korean Government, not because of it. We must engage with the victims of human rights abuses as well as the perpetrators.
When the United Nations Human Rights Council met in March to discuss the report, both it and the United Kingdom voted to recommend that the General Assembly should submit the report to the Security Council for appropriate action, which could include a referral to the International Criminal Court.
Can the Minister tell us whether we will be seeking a Security Council resolution, a referral to the ICC or another judicial tribunal and an expansion of the existing sanctions regime to cover human rights violations?
The resolution also called upon member states to consider implementing the recommendations as laid out in the CoI’s report. Can the Minister tell us how many of the CoI’s recommendations that pertain specifically to states that Her Majesty’s Government have implemented thus far?
As this report describes, North Korea is a country that is beyond parallel. The United Nations special rapporteur, Mr Darusman, recently said, following the publication of the report:
“There is no turning back; it cannot be ‘business as usual’.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis, once said:
“We have been silent witnesses to evil deeds”.
Let that never be said of us.
Lord Eames (CB):
My Lords, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a devastating indictment of life today in North Korea. It makes explicit reference to violations of the right to food; violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention; and violations of the right to life and freedom of expression. It paints a detailed picture of a society that exists on fear and intimidation. It talks about a captive people cut off from the outside world.
As one who visited North Korea in 2007, I have seen something of the atmosphere that prevails in the lives of ordinary people. I was asked by the then Archbishop of Canterbury to lead an international delegation of Anglican communion members to present the proceeds of a world appeal in the aftermath of the floods and storms that devastated North Korea. Despite the outward appearance that I was presented with—the official face of North Korea—nothing could hide the stark realities of everyday life: the subjection of its people; the isolation of villages completely cut off from each other; the enforcement of strict measures by the military; and the fear of foreigners.
However, the difficulty of a report such as we are discussing today is even more than the tragic picture it paints. It is surely the question, “What now?”. Nobody denies the details of life in North Korea it contains; but what are the opportunities for the UK Government to bring about change in that hidden country? What can the outside world actually achieve in the face of the almost total isolation of North Korea? Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”.
In light of this, it may surprise noble Lords to learn that North Korea has acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Yet the commission reported that domestic violence is still rife in North Korea and that it is quite common to see women beaten and sexually assaulted in public. North Korean officials are said to exact penalties in the form of sexual abuse and violence with no fear of punishment, while single women who seek membership of the Workers’ Party of Korea are subjected to sexual abuse. It was even testified that the rape of adults is not really considered a crime in North Korean society.
Despite all the attention given to the CoI’s report by the international media and Governments around the world, gender-based violence has been the most overlooked aspect of the report. The former Foreign Secretary has been vocal on the role of the UK in ending sexual violence, most notably in his establishment of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Can the Minister assure us that the FCO has been vocal on this issue in its dealings with the Government of North Korea? He may wish to consider matching FCO spending on cultural programmes in North Korea, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with spending on projects designed to improve the rights of women in that country.
In its report, the commission documented countless violations of the freedom of thought, expression and religion in North Korea. Using the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as its benchmark, the commission concluded that the indoctrination of the North Korean population has been implemented to such a degree that the emergence and development of free thought and conscience is entirely suppressed. Such extreme indoctrination is not reserved for adults; the indoctrination of children is routine.
Children are taught violence and hatred of the outside world. Their aspirations are not set for personal betterment, but to aspire to and emulate their former leader, who remains the country’s “eternal president” despite his death in 1994. One witness even claimed that as a child he was only interested in becoming a great warrior in order to become a killer of his enemies. Children who do not live up to such hateful standards are instructed to publicly berate themselves in weekly confession and criticism sessions. The children we are talking about are aged four. In their project for North Korea, this Government concerned themselves with children’s care institutions and teaching programmes. The Minister may wish to consider how teaching programmes may challenge the indoctrination of children, which seeks to imbue North Korean children with hatred.
I am particularly concerned about the position of religion and religious groups in North Korea. The Christian community is totally outlawed. Public worship is banned. Freedom to express the Christian faith is forbidden and those who refuse to renounce Christianity are subjected to imprisonment, torture and even execution.
I have two final points for the Minister. Some weeks ago she responded to remarks we made about the work of the BBC overseas and the hope that one day a way would be found to encourage its use in North Korea. What encouragement can the UK Government give to the BBC to consider this possibility afresh? Secondly, our embassy in Pyongyang presents an opportunity to do things that are denied to some of our partners. Is the Minister satisfied that we are making the most use possible of this facility?
The Lord Bishop of Peterborough:
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important and timely debate. The report of the United Nations commission makes horrifying reading, and it is surely incumbent on the democratic and free world to read, reflect, take counsel and take action. There is great evil in the North Korean regime, which the civilised world cannot simply ignore: not just because it threatens regional and world peace, although it does; not just because millions of innocent people are suffering, although they are; not just because every human right is being trampled, although it is; but, ultimately, because not to do anything about evil on this scale is to collude with it.
The Diocese of Peterborough is twinned through the Anglican Communion’s companion link scheme with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea. That has given me the privilege of visiting South Korea, studying its history and culture, getting to know its people and seeing some of the wonderful work that the church does there. British people, even Members of your Lordships’ House, may be surprised to know that the Christian church is alive, strong and remarkably influential in South Korea—as it was in the north before the communist takeover. In the 2007 census, 46% of South Koreans identified themselves as having no religion; 29% as Christian; 23% as Buddhist; all other faith groups put together made up the other 2%.
Christianity has become the largest religion, and thrives. South Korea is second only to the United States in the number of its people travelling abroad as Christian missionaries. Internally, the Christian faith has had and continues to have great influence for the good on civil society, human rights—especially of women and children—and democracy.
During my most recent trip in May, I visited schools, residential homes and work projects for people with disabilities, migrant workers and others often seen as excluded in advanced industrial societies. Previously, I have visited major projects to feed and care for the homeless and a large residential home for the elderly, with high-dependency medical facilities and staff. All those projects are run by the Anglican Diocese of Seoul, sometimes under licence or with funding from the city council, sometimes simply as Christian charitable ventures. The big society—are we still allowed to use that phrase?—is alive and flourishing in South Korea, making civil society and people’s lives better.
The growth and influence of Christianity, not least through Minjung theology, which focuses on the image of God in people, their intrinsic worth and the need to lift them out of oppression and suffering, has been huge. The older Confucian hierarchical structure gave little or no value to individuals, and none to women or children. That culture has been totally transformed, largely through Christian influence.
My visit earlier this year followed shortly after the terrible ferry tragedy in which hundreds of children died. Seoul was covered with yellow ribbons in tribute to those children. The Government were in severe difficulty because of the avoidable accident. Those responsible were being prosecuted. Questions were being asked about how institutions and individuals could fail to protect children. Human life is now valued in South Korea as much as in the West, and that process has reached the point of looking for special protection for the weakest and most honourable. Christian influence and values have achieved that.
The process of advancing human rights and democratisation began across the whole of Korea before the Korean War, but has been effectively crushed in the north since then. I have also visited the demilitarised zone. I have not yet visited the north, but I have seen in Seoul’s Anglican Cathedral photos and lists of Christian leaders martyred by the communists during the Korean War, including the dean of the cathedral and the mother superior of the Anglican convent next door, where I stayed in May.
I have met some of the people involved in the Anglican Church’s remarkable initiative, TOPIK—Towards Peace in Korea. That organisation, which last year put on a major peace conference in Okinawa, Japan, works for the peaceful reunification of Korea. It provides famine and flood relief for North Koreans, and from time to time gets permission from the Pyongyang Government to take aid in. It promotes dialogue with North Koreans, and helps some of the few North Koreans who escape the brutality of their regime to resettle in the south.
I do not need to catalogue the horrors perpetrated by the regime in the north—the report does that. So do the testimonies of those who have escaped from the concentration camps, some of whom have been to speak to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as we have heard. I do not need to remind noble Lords of the brutal attempt to wipe out religion, particularly Christianity—the report does that. So do the accounts of various atrocities brought to us by agencies such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
I am neither diplomat nor politician, but certain things are clear to me. First, keeping North Korea isolated, treating it like a pariah state, will not help. It may well be that individual leaders need to be brought to the bar of international justice, but the state itself and its people must be cared for as part of the human family rather than demonised and held at arm’s length. Western and Asian Governments should press for aid agencies to be allowed in, and should offer to feed a starving people. Diplomatic channels should be kept open. Ideally, China would help Pyongyang to be more open to the rest of the world.
Secondly, the Government of South Korea should be encouraged and helped by the rest of the world to continue to work and prepare for reunification. Such work is going on under President Park, but more is needed. The economic cost of reunification will be enormous, even for a relatively wealthy country such as South Korea. The infrastructure of the north is virtually non-existent, millions have starved in recent years, hundreds of thousands are in concentration camps, and there is no freedom or civil society. The civilised world needs to be ready to stand alongside South Korea for this enormous humanitarian nation-building task.
Thirdly, the people of North Korea must be helped to prepare for a better future. Some Christian and other agencies are already doing that on a small scale, at great risk to themselves. However, the world can and should do more. As has been noted already, the failure of the BBC to provide a Korean service to reach the north, and the failure of our Government to encourage and even fund the BBC to do that, is quite inexplicable. That sort of outreach helped prepare the people of eastern Europe, and most recently the people of Burma, to aspire to and then live in a freer society. The BBC has changed and is changing, but surely its responsibility to promote our democratic and free values—not least in places where they are under threat or do not exist—must remain.
The world community cannot simply ignore the plight of the people of North Korea. They are our brothers and sisters in the human family, and we have a responsibility towards them.
Baroness Cox (CB):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on securing this debate, on his tireless dedication to human rights and freedom around the world, and on his leadership on the situation in North Korea. As has been mentioned, I have had the privilege of travelling with my noble friend to the DPRK on three occasions and serving as vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the DPRK. I echo all the points my noble friend made.
North Korea is the world’s most closed nation, in which every article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated, and it has been aptly described as “one large prison”. As has already been emphasised, the report by the UN commission of inquiry has helped to put North Korea’s appalling human rights record higher up the international agenda and has shone a light on one of the darkest corners of the world. Among the catalogue of crimes against humanity which the commission has documented are the denial of freedom of religion and the brutal persecution of religious believers, which I wish to highlight today, echoing concerns eloquently expressed by the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords.
According to the UN inquiry:
“There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association”.
It concludes that the regime,
“considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat”,
and as a result:
“Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”.
Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”. We know from many testimonies of North Korean refugees that possessing a Bible in North Korea can lead to execution and/or incarceration in prison camps, being subjected to severe torture, inhuman conditions and, in some cases, slave labour.
I remember one story of a labour camp based in an iron foundry. One day, all the inmates were forced to stand in a large circle and the three Christian prisoners there were put in the middle. They were given an ultimatum: either they recanted their faith or they would die with molten iron poured over them. They refused to recant and they died singing praises to God as the molten iron was poured over them.
Although the DPRK’s constitution allows for freedom of religion in Article 68, in practice any belief that dissents from total loyalty to and worship of the Kim dynasty is a crime. An edict from Kim Il-sung declared that,
“religious people should die to cure their habit”.
The current ruler, his grandson Kim Jong-un, continues this policy. In 1950, 24% of the North Korean population practised religion. Today, that figure is just 0.16%. With the exception of the four state-controlled Potemkin-style churches in Pyongyang, which I and my noble friend have visited, Christians and other religious believers in North Korea worship in secret and in fear.
An indication of how the regime views religion—specifically Christianity—is seen in the response of the DPRK’s ambassador to the UN after the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review. He highlighted the activities of Christians working among North Koreans in China, saying:
“There are in the northeastern area of China so-called churches and priests exclusively engaged in hostile acts against the DPRK. They indoctrinate the illegal border crossers with anti-DPRK ideology and send them back to the DPRK with assignments of subversion … human trafficking and even terrorist acts”.
China’s policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees and sometimes arresting Christian missionaries who help them is cause for serious concern. North Korean escapees who are sent back into the DPRK face dire consequences, particularly if they are suspected of having converted to Christianity, of having been in contact with Christian missionaries or of possessing a Bible. I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government have raised these human rights violations with the Chinese authorities and, echoing the query raised by my noble friend Lord Alton, whether HMG have urged China to stop arresting missionaries and refugees and to end its policy of forcible repatriation.
A month ago, an international law firm, Hogan Lovells, commissioned by an international network of NGOs known as Human Liberty, published an independent legal analysis of North Korea’s human rights record, concluding that the DPRK’s targeting and extermination of religious groups might indeed constitute genocide. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s 2007 report, North Korea: A Case to Answer—A Call to Act, also concluded that there may be “indicators of genocide” in relation to religious persecution. I ask the Minister to clarify Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the Hogan Lovells report. What steps are they taking to address the severe violations of freedom of religion and other human rights in North Korea, including lack of accountability and widespread impunity?
I also want to raise, briefly, two other issues: the information blockade, highlighted again and again by my noble friend Lord Alton and other noble Lords because it is so important; and humanitarian crises. Only by breaking the regime’s information blockade can the people of North Korea be given alternative ways of thinking to the propaganda that they are fed daily. I did a lot of work behind the iron curtain in the dark days of Soviet communism, and particularly martial law in Poland, and I remember how eagerly the people trapped behind the iron curtain yearned to hear news from the BBC and from the West. It was transformational in keeping them in touch with the wider world and giving them alternative ideas in preparation for the time of transition.
I therefore reiterate the view expressed on many occasions by many noble Lords that the BBC World Service should reconsider a Korean-language broadcast, especially as the UN inquiry notes the importance of foreign short-wave radio broadcasts. It calls on the international community to provide more support for the work of civil society organisations and to make efforts to broadcast accessible information to the country.
The inquiry also highlights North Korea’s dire humanitarian crises, concluding that the deprivation of food, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population, amounts to virtual extermination. In addition to the regime’s policies, which have caused food shortages and distributed food on the basis of political class, the international community also bears some responsibility. While there are legitimate questions to be asked about transparency and accountability of aid, what assistance will Her Majesty’s Government provide, and might that increase to meet the very real humanitarian crisis?
North Korea’s healthcare system is another issue needing urgent attention. The Guardian in April reported North Korean refugees describing a health system with,
“broken equipment, declining treatment standards and widespread self-medication”.
When my noble friend and I were in Pyongyang on one of our visits, we were told by local people that the contents of the first aid kit in our vehicle represented more equipment than would be found than in many a rural primary healthcare clinic in North Korea.
A US doctor, Ryan Choi, in a new paper on healthcare in North Korea, describes the healthcare system in shambles. The downstream effects are food shortages, a shortage of domestically produced pharmaceuticals, breakdown of the sanitation system, a shortage of medical supplies and, very seriously, a resurgence of infectious disease and a rise in mortality and morbidity. A 2010 report by Amnesty International paints a similarly disturbing picture. Are Her Majesty’s Government providing any assistance to address this crisis in the DPRK’s healthcare system?
I conclude with the words of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, from his most recent report. He said:
“The work performed by the commission of inquiry should be seen as the beginning of a process, not the end … The post-commission era presents a new phase for the human rights of the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea … and requires a decisive change in the approach going forward … The international community must set in train immediate, impartial and just action to secure accountability, fulfil the responsibility to protect, put human rights first and stop grave human rights violations, in accordance with international law … The revelation of the truth, international scrutiny and sustained pressure have had some initial effects and will continue to do so”.
I hope the Minister can provide assurances today that Her Majesty’s Government will treat the desperate human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea with the urgency and priority that are so desperately needed.
Lord Burnett (LD):
My Lords, I am grateful to the Deputy Chairman, to my noble friend Lord Alton and to other Members of Committee for allowing me to speak in the gap. I congratulate my noble friend—and he is my noble friend—Lord Alton on calling this debate and I pay tribute to him for his tenacious and courageous commitment to the endeavour of securing respect for human rights and democracy in North Korea.
We have heard this afternoon that the 2014 report of the commission on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea sets out clearly the horrific and cruel nature of the regime. In the first paragraph of its conclusions and recommendations, it says that,
“systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity”.
Those are serious charges. It goes on to say:
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world … a State that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within”.
Amnesty estimates that more than 100,000 North Koreans are in prison camps, often at the whim of some apparatchik; slave labour, child abuse and torture are commonplace in these camps. Prisoners have little food and hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of people have died in these camps since the 1950s.
In 1945, when the full nature of the heinous Nazi crimes became apparent, the free world wondered why it had failed to act, in the face of far less compelling evidence. We know what is happening in North Korea. We in Britain have a dilemma. We do not have the military or financial power to topple the regime. It is also in the best interests of those who sincerely wish to effect change and bring about democracy and respect for human rights in North Korea for us to preserve our embassy and representation in that brutally afflicted country.
Recently I took part in a debate on defence. I and other noble and noble and gallant Lords highlighted the fact that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. It is not just the intractable Israel, Palestine and Middle East conflicts, and the conflicts that beset almost the entirety of Africa from north to south; it is the conflicts in Ukraine, India and Pakistan and the continued tension between China and Japan, as well as other conflicts in other parts of the world. Those of us who are deeply concerned about North Korea fear that the conflicts raging elsewhere are bound to take the attention and priority of the nations that can effect change in North Korea. I refer principally to China.
Our relations with China seem to be on a constructive course and there is some evidence that China takes an increasingly critical view of the horrors that the North Korean regime inflicts on its people. The United Nations special rapporteur’s report on human rights of June 2014 makes certain recommendations in paragraphs 51 and 52 in respect of neighbouring and other states concerned.
Paragraph 51 starts:
“On the issue of refoulement”—
that is, forced repatriation—
“the commission of inquiry recommended that China and other States should respect the principle of non-refoulement and, accordingly, abstain from forcibly repatriating any persons”—
Baroness Jolly (LD):
I am sorry, but the noble Lord is speaking in the gap and his time is four minutes.
I will finish by saying that we know how sensitive the matter is. We in Britain have a great deal of influence in the world. We in Parliament must continually impress on our Government the necessity to bring about the changes that should have been made decades ago to this cruel, unforgiving regime, which has for years imposed itself on the people of North Korea.
Lord Bach (Lab):
My Lords, the House again owes a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, not just for obtaining this debate, but for the extraordinary work he has done in relation to North Korea for many years—often in association with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Without him, the public, Parliament and—dare I say—Government would be much less well informed than they are. He has raised this issue up the agenda, where it should and must be.
Reading the commission’s report was unlike reading any other report I can remember. In clear, reasoned and judicious terms, it sets out what the horror of being a citizen of North Korea today involves. Life in North Korea would be a classic case of dystopia, except that it is not imaginary. It is real. George Orwell’s magnificent imagination, which created Oceania in the wonderful novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, perhaps gets closest to it, but by comparison Oceania seems positively liberal.
In short, the report is a shocking read and noble Lords in this debate with much more expertise than me have spoken of their response, and it is difficult to say anything original or new. As has been pointed out, the challenge is how to respond to such a regime. Of course, engagement is the right course, difficult as it is in practice, provided—and this is a big proviso—that we never leave behind human rights issues. That is why our diplomatic presence in North Korea is to be welcomed. It is also why the work of the British Council—here I again declare my interest as chair of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group—is to be admired and encouraged. It was good to read the speech made by the Minister’s colleague, the honourable Hugo Swire, in a debate in another place on North Korea on 13 May when he said that,
“through the British Council and educational immersion programmes, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and values”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/14; col. 236WH.]
It is also why it is right for noble Lords today to have been pressing, in a proper and appropriate way, for the BBC to set up broadcasts to the Korean peninsula. If ever there were a people who needed to hear the World Service and for whom the World Service was appropriate, it is surely the North Koreans. However, we must never not talk about human rights.
In a major debate in your Lordships’ House on 21 November last the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made an important point when discussing how to respond generally to human rights abuses:
“In considering how Britain should respond to human rights abuses, I suggest that one mistake we need to avoid is looking at the issue principally, or even solely, in the context of our bilateral relationship with the country in question. However, Britain’s influence and leverage are unlikely to be decisive nowadays. All too often we have seen how easy it is for the country in question to punish us for our temerity and play us off against other countries which have been less assertive”.—[Official Report, 21/11/13; col. 1107.]
Human rights abuses are legion in North Korea and many undoubtedly constitute crimes against humanity. Of course the British Government must have a bilateral relationship with North Korea, as they must with all countries, but surely the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly of the UN and the Security Council of the UN are the key bodies to work through in combating these abuses. Do the Government agree with that sentiment?
Given the totally negative attitude of the North Korean Government, the remarkable Michael Kirby and the other members of the commission of inquiry have produced a full and devastating report. Whichever section of it one reads, I am afraid that the same deeply depressing verdict is overwhelming. Whether it is about abductions, freedom of thought, expression and religion; or about discrimination or violations of freedom of movement and residence; or the deeply shocking violations of the right to food and the equally shocking section on arbitrary detentions, torture, executions and prison camps, there is little or no comfort to be found. It is a very bleak picture indeed. However, at its end the report makes what I believe to be sensible recommendations. It points out the need for those responsible to be held to judicial account and, in its last recommendation, it calls for the UN and the states involved in the Korean War to convene a high-level political conference to consider and ratify a final, peaceful settlement of that war. That is a brave—some might even say a courageous—recommendation but it is also one which demonstrates that, even after hearing the appalling evidence about the regime, the authors of the report are determined to keep a light shining in the massive gloom that prevails. If they can keep that light shining, surely it is our duty to do so, too.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in relation to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on introducing this debate and shining a spotlight on atrocious human rights abuses in the DPRK. I pay tribute to his work, and indeed to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and that of the North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group for what, I believe, is the most important aspect of that work, which is giving ordinary North Koreans a voice.
Noble Lords will know that the United Nations commission of inquiry has provided an authoritative account of the systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed by a state described as,
“without parallel in the contemporary world”.
As others have said, it is now vital that we ensure that its report is a beginning, not an end. The commission of inquiry report called for:
“Urgent accountability measures … combined with a reinforced human rights dialogue, the promotion of incremental change through more people-to-people contact and an inter-Korean agenda for reconciliation”.
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I cannot comment on inter-Korean reconciliation—that is a matter for the two Koreas—but I will set out how, as asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, the UK is responding, bilaterally and with others, to the commission’s recommendations on accountability, human rights dialogue and people-to-people contact.
First, on accountability, the UK agrees that, with no willingness from the DPRK to hold perpetrators to account, the international community has a responsibility to take action. We have already taken several steps. We worked with others to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council’s DPRK resolution in March contained strong language on accountability, including a recommendation that the commission’s report be forwarded to the UN Security Council. In April, we joined other Security Council members for an informal public briefing by commissioners. In May, we raised DPRK human rights issues during closed consultations with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In June, my right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Member for East Devon, visited Geneva. He took part in an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, raised DPRK human rights with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and discussed accountability with representatives from the United States, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the EU. We will continue to work with like-minded partners to maximise the prospects of achieving genuine accountability, despite the challenges.
There is broad agreement on what we need to do: focus on DPRK human rights at this autumn’s UN General Assembly; achieve a strong, well supported DPRK resolution in the UNGA Third Committee; and take forward the recommendation that the UN Security Council should formally consider the commission’s findings and recommendations. This includes referral to the International Criminal Court, which the Government have made clear we would support. However, the DPRK has not signed the Rome Statute. As noble Lords will be aware, this means referral can be achieved only through a UN Security Council resolution. As we saw with Syria, China and Russia are likely to use their vetoes to block any such resolution. This does not mean that we should not pursue an ICC referral, but it does mean that we need to think carefully about when and how to take one forward, not least to ensure the maximum support from other members of the Security Council and the wider UN membership.
However, not all the commission’s recommendations on accountability need Security Council action. A number of measures are already moving forward, including renewal of the special rapporteur’s mandate and the creation of a new regional field office, to be based in the Republic of Korea. This new office will continue the commission’s work of collecting and documenting human rights violations until the North Korean regime can be brought to account. The UK stands ready to offer our support.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked specifically about sanctions. The commission made a recommendation to the Security Council on targeted sanctions. Existing UN and EU sanctions against the DPRK are based on UN Security Council resolutions targeting the DPRK’s
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nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Like an ICC referral, a new UN sanctions regime would require a UN Security Council resolution. The UK would want any new sanction proposals to have a clear impact on the human rights situation in North Korea without any unintended negative impact on the general population. After recent successful legal challenges, we need to be sure that any proposals are both legally and politically deliverable in the European Union.
Alongside accountability, the UN commission of inquiry stressed the importance of continued human rights dialogue. The universal periodic review remains one of the few forums in which the DPRK is willing to engage on human rights, so we are exploring with partners how we can build on that.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, asked what avenues are open to the UK to influence the present regime. Bilateral human rights have always been an integral part of the dialogue with the DPRK. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough said, we believe in the importance of keeping those diplomatic channels open. Through our embassy in Pyongyang and its embassy in London, we deliver clear messages about the unacceptability of ongoing human rights violations, including the persecution of Christians, which both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, have rightly highlighted.
In this regard, we are aware of the report to which the noble Baroness referred—the Hogan Lovells report—and its conclusions with respect to genocide on religious grounds. This of course differs from the position taken by the commission of inquiry, which concluded that the available evidence in this respect was ambiguous. We raised the need for the DPRK to engage with the international community on these issues and made clear our readiness to work together to improve the situation on the ground.
In a small way, our engagement on disability rights has shown that this is not completely impossible, and that progress can sometimes be made. More meaningful improvements would need a radical shift in DPRK thinking. We must convince it that, if it takes that chance, the international community will respond in good faith.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, again asked about our human rights dialogue and how we raise particular issues. There are occasions when we raise individual cases as a way of making the broader points. One such case was that of the South Korean national Kim Jung-wook, who was sentenced in May to life with hard labour following convictions for trying to establish underground churches and espionage; another was that of the 33 North Koreans who allegedly have been sentenced to death for contact with Kim Jung-wook.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about whether the DPRK has committed crimes against humanity. The commission’s report presents horrifying accounts of the scale of human rights violations in the DPRK. Ultimately, as the noble Lord knows, only a court of law can rule on whether crimes against humanity have been committed in legal terms, but it is clearly a very strong case to answer. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also asked about the position of China. We raised DPRK human rights
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concerns with China, including the specific issue of forced repatriation, which I think was mentioned by other noble Lords as well. The then Foreign Secretary raised this during his meeting with State Councillor Yang Jiechi in February this year, and officials raised it during the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue on 19 and 20 May.
Another area which the commission of inquiry highlighted was the role of people-to-people contact in supporting long-term change by giving North Koreans the opportunity—
Lord Burnett: I am sorry to interrupt. Can my noble friend tell the Committee the result of the representations that were made to the Government of China this year?
Baroness Warsi: I do not have the specific read-out of that meeting with me, and I need to be accurate about the information that I give at the Dispatch Box. I will therefore write to the noble Lord with further information.
I return to people-to-people contact, an issue highlighted by the commission of inquiry as a way of effecting long-term change. This is an area where the UK can help, given our presence on the ground in Pyongyang. Many of our engagement activities are designed precisely to increase such people-to-people contacts. Through the English language teacher training programme, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and British values. The British Council is considering the scope of further cultural activity in line with its own commitment to engagement, not isolation. This year our embassy has funded a number of economic workshops, another area of engagement referred to in the commission’s recommendations.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough all argued about whether the Government would support Korean-language broadcasts by the BBC World Service in line with the commission’s recommendation on addressing the information blockade. This is a question that has been asked on a number of occasions, as noble Lords will know, and I think I will disappoint them by repeating what I have said—that the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent. Decisions on new language services are for it to consider, and then, if appropriate, to put to the Foreign Secretary. It has undertaken to keep this issue under review. I remind noble Lords of the last Oral Question that I answered on this, when I went into some detail on some of the challenges that that proposes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the right reverend Prelate again raised the issue of the humanitarian situation. While that has improved somewhat in recent years, there remain many causes for concern, such as those highlighted with regard to food security and healthcare. The UK helps to address these needs through its core funding to the multilateral aid organisations operating in the DPRK. The amount that goes to the DPRK varies, but in 2011-12 it was around £2 million.
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The noble Lord, Lord Alton, specifically asked about the former chargé d’affaires and referred to comments he had made recently. I cannot comment on his personal views or what he may have said or written since leaving the FCO—he left in 2003—but I am aware that during the time he was in post his views were those of Her Majesty’s Government.
This Government are fully committed to tackling North Korea’s poor human rights record. We do not underestimate the challenges, but we do believe that change is possible. We, along with the rest of the international community, have a responsibility to do everything we can to support it.
Citation for a Corporate Award of Liverpool John Moores University for the Royal British Legion given by David Alton at Liverpool Cathedral Graduation Ceremonies on Tuesday 15th July 2014
Honourable Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting The Royal British Legion for a Corporate Award for services to the Armed Forces.
Next month officially marks the 100th anniversary of the day Britain entered one of the costliest conflicts in history – the First World War – beginning on 4th of August 1914, with fighting continuing until the 11th of November 1918, Armistice Day.
A century on from this, recognition and remembrance are important to us all and particularly in our support for those serving in the Armed Forces, veterans and their families.
Inevitably historians have again been assessing the causes of the Great War, asking who was to blame for its outbreak, its bloody and protracted course, and its consequences for a century mired in horrific violence and conflict. Many of us had relatives who died or were maimed in those events. What a consolation it has been to know that The Royal British Legion has been there, and is still there, for those who have served their country and paid such a high price.
The Royal British Legion was founded in 1921 by British veterans in the aftermath of the First World War. Earl Haig, commander of the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele was one of the founders of the Legion.
In our time, when people talk about ‘The Royal British Legion’, they think of the Poppy Appeal and Remembrance services or even, perhaps, that it is just a social club for old soldiers.
But the Legion is also a campaigning organisation which has called for more research into the Gulf War syndrome and compensation for its victims; upgrading of War Pensions; the extension of endowment mortgage compensation for British military personnel serving overseas; and better support for British military personnel resettling into civilian life.
When the Legion’s leaders looked around them in 1921, not only did they see a gigantic task in front of them looking after those who had suffered in the recent war, they also sought to prevent further sacrifice by reminding the nation of the human cost of war and to work actively for peace.
The problems facing those veterans from previous wars when they returned to the UK continue to affect serving personnel and veterans today: whether living with bereavement or disability, finding employment, or coping with financial stress.
This is why the Legion is still an important source of support for the whole Armed Forces community through welfare, companionship and representation as well as being the Nation’s custodian of Remembrance. They help serving members of the Armed Forces, ex-Service men and women and their families throughout their lives.
The Legion funds care homes and break centres, provides employment grants and beneficiary services and has over 320,000 members, 2,445 branches around the UK and a further 88 overseas.
The Legion has also made a £50 million commitment over 10 years to help serving men and women who are wounded, injured or sick. The money is being used to develop and run the Battle Back Centre, an adaptive sports facility in Shropshire and to fund the operating costs of four Personnel Recovery Centres in the UK and a Personnel Recovery Unit in Germany. The facilities are part of the MoD’s Defence Recovery Capability initiative, delivered by the Royal British Legion in partnership with Help for Heroes , alongside other Service charities and agencies.
Additionally, the Legion also sponsors a website, civvystreet, which assists Service leavers and members of the ex-Service community and their dependents with information, advice and guidance on resettlement, learning and work with specialist services provided by partner organisations.
Veterans today speak of the Legion as a ‘life-saving’ organisation who are ‘like a family’ and who ‘won’t let anyone go without assistance.’
This role is reflected in the new Advice and Information Centre which opened recently in the heart of Liverpool’s city centre for Service personnel and veterans to ‘Pop In’ for support and advice. Based on Williamson Street, it was the first of 16 centres that the Legion opened in major cities across the UK in order to bring its work closer to the Armed Forces community. Each centre offers a welcoming space for Service personnel and veterans to get practical help and advice, and for members of the public to find out more about the wide range of services and community activities provided by the Legion.
The Legion is also at the forefront of Centenary commemorations including the Centenary Poppy Campaign – which asks the public and local authorities to purchase Flanders poppy seeds to plant on their own land. The aim of the campaign is to cover the UK with poppies during the centenary period in commemoration of all those who lost their lives in the First World War.
The tradition of wearing a poppy to mark Remembrance Day dates back to 1921 when the Royal British Legion launched its first appeal.
John McCrae’s iconic poem “In Flanders Fields”, definitively captures the desolation and the loss of that moment:
“To you from falling hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders Field.”
In all the years which have followed the Royal British Legion have carried that torch and have never broken faith….
The Royal British Legion is a big family –, supporting the Armed Forces community, and has undertaken exceptional work for 93 years, consistently showing an outstanding civic conscience throughout this time.
It is thus with great pleasure that we invite Vice Admiral Peter Wilkinson to receive, on behalf of The Royal British Legion, the Corporate Award from Liverpool John Moores University.
Also see: Merseyside at war web site:
BBC World Service, British Council, The Use of Soft Power, and the Promotion of British Values and Interests Overseas
Motion to Take Note
12.27 pm July 10th 2014
Lord Alton of Liverpool
To move that this House takes note of the role of the BBC World Service and the British Council in promoting British values and interests worldwide.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friends on the Cross Benches for selecting this Motion for debate today. It draws attention to the role of the BBC World Service and the British Council in promoting British values, part of what Joseph Nye once described as the exercise of soft power. It sits comfortably with the debate that will follow in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, which draws attention to the role our legal institutions play in promoting Britain’s reputation and way of life worldwide.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who will participate, many of whom bring a lifetime of experience and knowledge.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the Minister who will reply. The House of Lords Library also deserves our thanks for the excellent note it has prepared for today’s debate.
It hardly needs saying that all of our speeches will be held against a backdrop in the Middle East of the exercise of a different kind of power, characterised by visceral hatred and unspeakable violence.
They are being held in a climate in which fragile peace and seedling democracies, from the China Sea to the Ukraine, are at daily risk. That is to say nothing of global violation of human rights, from North Korea to Sudan, from Nigeria to Pakistan.
More than 30 years ago as a young Member of the House of Commons travelling behind the iron curtain, and in 1981 to India, Nepal and China, I first began to fully understand the importance of the BBC World Service and the British Council as agents for change.
The BBC World Service started life in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, with Sir John Reith—later Lord Reith—warning,
“don’t expect too much in the early days … The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good”.
More than 80 years later, with a global audience last month of 265 million people and transmitting in English and 27 other languages, there is no doubt that the World Service has surpassed all of Lord Reith’s modest expectations.
Often, it has been the only lifeline to honest reporting of news and current affairs.
Mikhail Gorbachev said that he listened to the BBC’s transmissions. However, both organisations—the British Council and the World Service—promote the UK’s economic interests too.
In one survey of international business leaders in America, India and Australia, two-thirds said that the BBC was the main way in which they found out about the United Kingdom. Hence, the Motion talks about promoting our values and our interests.
During the past 10 years, as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and during visits to remote parts of Africa and Burma, my appreciation of the BBC World Service and the British Council has grown into deep admiration, not least for courageous BBC journalists, such as its chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet and the head of the BBC’s Burma service Tin Htar Swe, who were both recently honoured in the Birthday Honours List.
Courage, however, comes at a price.
Let us consider the 90 journalists killed since the start of the Syrian conflict three years ago, with scores of others kidnapped, or the imprisonment of journalists in Egypt, including Peter Greste, the former BBC journalist. James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, said that these jailings were an,
“act of intimidation against all journalists”.
Getting the news out and getting the news in are therefore two sides of one coin.
In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi says that World Service transmissions reach more than 80% of people. When I visited her in March last year, she told me that the World Service had been a game-changer. Of course, she also listened to the World Service during her many years of detention, describing it as a lifeline.
Believing passionately in the power of ideas, she used her Nobel Peace Prize money to establish her own Democratic Voice of Burma radio service.
At the World Service’s 80th anniversary commemoration held in December 2012 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I was particularly struck by the words of a young Ukrainian woman, who described how her parents had illegally concealed a radio beneath their floorboards and would bring it out clandestinely to listen to the news from London.
She said that the proudest day of her parents’ lives was when she told them that she had secured a job at Bush House, where the BBC World Service was located from 1940 until 2012. Not without significance, the audience of the Ukrainian service has tripled in the past 12 months.
A long-serving BBC foreign correspondent, Allan Little, recalls an elderly Jewish man in Paris who agreed to give him an interview because, as a boy in hiding in wartime Poland, the BBC was the only way he knew to keep on hoping. He also recalls the old independence fighter in Zimbabwe who hated the British yet, when he wanted to know what was happening in the world, listened in secret. He said, “We listened to you and we trusted you”.
Like many, Little regards the trust placed in the World Service and the BBC, fiercely guarded across the world and over generations, as a kind of covenant.
Credibility and authority—what Peter Horrocks, the World Service director, calls “radical impartiality”—marks out the BBC from its competition in increasingly crowded airwaves and with the phenomenal growth of the internet.
However, at a meeting held here just two nights ago, Mr Horrocks also pointed out that a broadcaster such as Al-Jazeera probably has a budget two to three times bigger than that of BBC News.
If the BBC World Service is not to decline, I hope that the Minister will tell us that comparative resources will form part of the review of the BBC charter scheduled for next year. I hope that the Minister will also say something about the current ambiguity in the BBC World Service’s lines of accountability and its mandate.
On 1 April this year, a great and almost unremarked on change occurred when the Foreign Office ceased to fund the World Service.
From now on, the £245 million bill will be borne by the licence fee payer. In January the House of Commons Select Committee which looked at this question voiced strong opposition to the plans outlined by the BBC Trust for wider commercialisation at the World Service. Its March 2014 report, The Future of the BBC World Service, outlined concerns about the impact of changes in the funding of the World Service.
Although the committee welcomed budget increases, it urged the BBC to announce detailed future funding allocations to allow the World Service to plan for the longer term.
Many of us share the Select Committee’s apprehension that further commercialisation will both overinfluence the BBC’s decisions on where and what to broadcast, and diminish our ability to use the service to pursue foreign policy objectives.
The example of the BBC World News offers salutary lessons. Conceived as the sister television arm of the World Service, this continuous news channel has 74 million viewers each week in 200 countries, and powerfully projects British values worldwide.
Unlike radio, BBC World News is owned and operated by a commercial entity, BBC Global News Ltd, and relies entirely on subscription, advertising and sponsorship deals to survive.
The failure of the current business plan means that on the 17th of this month BBC World News is to announce what its managers are calling “significant savings”—that is, cuts. These will come on top of year 3 cuts to BBC News under the programme Delivering Quality First, which since 2010 has seen spending on news cut by 20% and the loss of 2,000 jobs in the BBC.
The danger of the commercial imperative alone is that the BBC becomes dependent on it and, instead of seeing such deals as useful, it sees them as additional resource. It cannot be in the British interest for the BBC’s presence in the global media landscape to be increasingly subject to the vagaries of the ups and downs of the advertising market. It is bad for Britain’s business needs, and it is bad for the business of what Britain is all about. I hope that the Minister will do her best to allay those fears today.
In considering commercial factors versus our Article 19 obligation under the 1948 declaration on human rights to take no notice of frontiers but to communicate information worldwide, the Minister may want to comment on the example of North Korea, which was recently listed by the United Nations as a “country without parallel” and a perpetrator of human rights abuses.
In the view of the author of the UN report, Mr Justice Michael Kirby, BBC World Service broadcasts to the Korean peninsula would be a welcome contribution to breaking the information blockade that imprisons North Korea.
Professor Andrei Lankov states in his book The Real North Korea:
“The only long-term solution … is to increase North Korea’s awareness of the outside world”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, will say more on this subject when she makes her speech, and we will return to it in a Question for Short Debate in a few days.
Staying with North Korea for a moment, I particularly welcome the British Council’s English language work there, which I have seen first hand.
I also welcome the work of the British Council in Burma.
During my 2013 visit, I gave a lecture at the British Council library in Rangoon. I am told that the British Council receives more than 200,000 Burmese visitors to its sites in Rangoon and Mandalay each year. The libraries in Burma have more than 10,000 members and there is a network of 19 remote learning centres across the country. The British Council’s Facebook page has 340,000 “likes”—almost a quarter of the total internet users in the country.
The British Council was established in 1934 and incorporated by royal charter in 1940. It has 70 British Council teaching centres in 53 countries. It taught more than 1 million class hours to 300,000 learners in one recent year, and it describes itself as,
“the world’s largest English-language teaching organisation”.
I know that other noble Lords will speak more about its work, but let me give the example of Project English, which has benefited more than 27 million learners in India already.
There is the Young Arab Voices initiative that has helped more than 25,000 young Egyptians, Tunisians and Jordanians.
But in 2010-11 the FCO grant was 27% of the British Council’s income. In 2013-14 that grant is forecast to be less than 20% of total income and the proportion is projected to decrease, reaching 16% of total income by 2015-16.
Last month, the Prime Minister said that British values are,
“a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
But he went on to say that these values “do not come from thin air”, and resources do not come from thin air either.
We must be prepared to see the value of these amazing instruments of soft power and ensure that they are adequately resourced.
Our military response to global threats and new forms of terror will always require hard power, of course, but we are disproportionate in spending hundreds of times more on hard power than on soft power. Combining the two, what Hillary Clinton has described as “smart power”, should be part of our approach.
That is a view which was endorsed by the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence in its March 2014 report entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World. It said that:
“The ‘reach’ of the BBC and the British Council is immense, and this certainly adds to their ability to enhance the UK’s soft power”.
Before I conclude, I highlight for noble Lords a particular work by a notable champion of soft power, the former US ambassador to Hungary, Mark Palmer, who died a year ago. I commend his book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025.
We have just 10 years left to meet the deadline he set, and I believe that the BBC World Service and the British Council have a crucial role to play in achieving that. I pay tribute to Mark Palmer, and I believe that we in this country could learn much from his ideas.
We can also learn from those put forward by the British Academy, which has said in a report that:
“UK foreign policy is too often conducted in a compartmentalised manner, with the would-be benefits of soft power either judged to be outweighed by security concerns, or simply never taken into account”.
Soft power is, as the report concludes,
“likely to become more important in international relations over the coming years. UK governments can help themselves simply by recognising this, and by providing enough resources for the development and maintenance of its long-term assets”.
In moving this Motion, I ask the Minister what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to strengthen the deployment of soft power, how we are going to combine soft power with hard power, and to affirm, as I hope she will, our continuing belief on all sides of the House that the BBC World Service and the British Council are indispensable in promoting British values and interests throughout the world.
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab):
My Lords, the number of speakers in the debate is testament to the huge respect in which both the World Service and the British Council are held in this House. I want to focus on the role of the British Council as part of the fabric that underpins the UK’s foreign policy, and our soft power. There are friends of the UK around the world for whom the first step towards engaging with our country was sitting in the library of the British Council office in their home city.
I have had a long connection with the British Council and was once one of its trustees. Since that time, the landscape in which the British Council operates has changed, and the council has changed, too. It is not widely known that the council now draws just 20% of its income from government, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, that is set to fall further. The council exists to provide a public benefit. It has evolved to become a very significant social enterprise with a turnover of nearly £1 billion, but it operates in an increasingly commercial and competitive environment. Its bridge-building work between the UK’s cultural and education sectors, and those overseas, is funded by delivering commercial services. I have no doubt that this social enterprise model has created some challenges for the council, although I am glad to say that it continues to grow, to provide indispensable services and, most of all, to provide a network of well informed staff around the world. It is an exemplar of an entrepreneurial public service model and, in that context, offers excellent value to taxpayers.
I have seen this in the context of universities. The council’s network of international offices is envied by many of our competitors. It has the ability to provide market intelligence and to anticipate opportunities in countries where links are not well established. These are functions that we should protect and support, and I hope that the Minister will agree that the Government should continue to fund them. There is inevitably a tension between its cultural relations role on the one hand, and on the other the need to provide services for which universities are willing to pay. I believe that the council is well aware of this and is sensitive to it.
When I was chief executive of Universities UK, I created a small international and Europe unit. I am delighted to learn that this has grown to be a significant organisation, delivering millions of pounds’ worth of benefits by identifying opportunities, making links, influencing policy and negotiating collective agreements around the world. The council should be applauded for the way in which it has adapted to this changed landscape. It has recognised that it can be most effective by working in partnership with Universities UK’s international unit and with parts of government pursuing opportunities overseas, such as the UKTI education unit. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is important to ensure that those sources of support are well articulated, and work in complementary ways rather than creating confusion and duplication.
I like the fact that the British Council has been working closely with the international unit of Universities UK on an advisory service to help universities develop the rapidly growing area of transnational education. I like the fact that the council is working alongside Research Councils UK, the national academies, the international unit and a range of other bodies to deliver aspects of the Government’s newly announced Newton Fund, which supports research links with 15 emerging powers around the world.
Yes, the world has changed since the creation of the British Council. Yet it remains an important part of the UK’s effort to promote strong and lasting relationships internationally, including through education links. Reduced funding has necessitated changes in strategy, yet it has picked its way sensitively and effectively through this increasingly complicated terrain. It is a hugely valuable asset to the UK. We should be proud of it, and we should continue to support it.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for this debate. I speak on culture and media matters from these Benches, and I am an avid believer in the importance of the part played by both the BBC and the British Council in binding our nation together and defining us in the eyes of other nations. Yet their role and influence goes further, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. They are also key to the UK’s successful pursuit of soft power, defined in the very good recent report of a House of Lords Select Committee as,
“the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion”.
The pursuit of soft power is essential to UK diplomacy—and prosperity—in the 21st century. I declare an interest: I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Mexico, and in this capacity I have seen at first hand how cultural diplomacy is a major tool in pursuing collaboration on both an economic and a strategic level. In Mexico, the BBC is enjoyed, admired and trusted, and the British Council actively promotes British culture, language and values. Both are instruments by which those in Mexico understand who we are, what we stand for and what we offer.
2015 is the Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico, and it will be a great mutual celebration. It will strengthen ties between our Governments, our people and organisations. This forging of greater bilateral trust and engagement will make both of us richer in every sense of the word. On the ground in Mexico, it is the British Council, alongside our embassy, that is making this happen.
I worked for the BBC across genres, across departments and across the globe. I remember that when filming years ago in the Gulf, a fisherman from Somaliland saw our camera and came up to talk. “BBC”, he said immediately, “BBC. We love the BBC”. He was talking about the World Service, which of course in those days was received through a physical entity known as a wireless, not through a wireless connection delivering to a multitude of platforms. The World Service has kept up with the times and now people across the world get their information through many devices, but whatever the device the BBC is respected as accurate, impartial, objective and free of national interests. This goes back to the Second World War. Penelope Fitzgerald, in her wonderful novel set in Broadcasting House, writes that the BBC was,
“dedicated to the strangest project of the war … that is, telling the truth”.
Over and over again we see people turn to it in times of crisis. Noble Lords may remember a photograph taken at the beginning of the Arab spring at a demonstration in Syria, of a young man holding up a placard with “Thank you BBC” written in English.
Charter renewal is upon us. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree that the BBC, funded by the licence fee, should be protected and celebrated. We on these Benches support the BBC taking over responsibility for the World Service from the Foreign Office, but the Minister will know that World Service funding has at this point been settled for only one year. Does she not agree that this makes important long-term planning difficult? I hope that she and the FCO will help in the charter process to ensure that the future of the World Service is not diminished.
Lord Williams of Baglan (CB):
My Lords, I welcome this debate on two renowned and much loved British institutions whose impact on the globe during the past century has been immense. We as Members of this House, and, indeed, the British people, can take great pride in what they have done to promote British values of decency, fairness and respect. Both the council and the World Service have ensured a lasting British impact and influence in all corners of the globe.
For reasons of time, and to reflect my own personal experience, I will concentrate my remarks on the BBC World Service. I declare an interest as a trustee of the BBC with responsibilities for the World Service. I should also note that I worked for eight years as a journalist and editor at the World Service’s then headquarters, Bush House, in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In a subsequent career at the United Nations I experienced at first hand, in Cambodia and the Balkans, how critical the World Service is for people caught up in the vortex of violence and conflict, where information is always the first casualty. In the Middle East, I have seen how vital are the BBC’s services in Arabic and Farsi, on radio, in television and online, for the peoples of that region, and perhaps now more than ever, when conflict rages and freedom of the press scarcely exists in any country from the Maghreb to the Gulf. The tasks facing the World Service are as great as ever. In this country, we look to the BBC for information, entertainment and education, but there are still all too many countries in this world where the BBC sheds light where darkness prevails. One of my former bosses, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN, declared the World Service to be Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th century.
I am pleased to say that today, in a striking example of the BBC World Service’s continuing relevance and agility in adapting to changing circumstances, the Foreign Secretary has agreed to a new Thai language digital service being established. This online news service is responding to the need for accurate and impartial news and current affairs at a time when the Thai media are subject to censorship following the coup d’état of recent weeks. I welcome this move, which is of considerable importance. It may be a model suitable for a Korean service, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has advocated for some time. Although there are many difficulties in that regard, not least the funding, I salute the noble Lord’s endeavours. When I left the BBC in the early 1990s we broadcast in more than 50 languages, and nearly all on short wave. That number has now diminished to 27 languages, plus English. Our capacity in east Asian languages is much weaker than it was, making a viable Korean service difficult, although we have an online presence in languages such as Mandarin and Vietnamese.
I can testify that much of the focus in recent years has been on launching television and online services in Arabic and Farsi, which have had a great impact throughout the region. Nevertheless, the withdrawal from short-wave broadcasting during the past decade has been too fast, and in some cases deprived some of the most vulnerable audiences that the BBC World Service should serve.
Despite this, the World Service remains the most popular and best known of all international broadcasters. Yes, it is under pressure from competitors and budget cuts, but it is still primus inter pares. Following the financial settlement of 2010, it needs now to do more to show its relevance to licence fee payers.
Closure of the 648 kilohertz medium-wave service was a mistake and I propose to encourage the BBC Executive to do more to promote not only World Service language and World Service English but languages such as Somali, Urdu and Hindi, which have more speakers in our country than Welsh or Gaelic. The impact of the World Service on domestic radio and television has already been apparent, and we are seeing rather fewer white men in suits in the world’s trouble spots. I believe that as we embed the World Service further into the domestic BBC, our people will increasingly see its value at home and abroad.
Baroness Northover (LD):
My Lords, may I remind noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate? When the clock reaches 4, noble Lords have had their four minutes.
Baroness Prashar (CB):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the opportunity to debate this topic, and for his introduction. The BBC World Service and the British Council are, of course, two of the best instruments we have for promoting our values and interests. I am proud to be the British Council’s deputy chair. This year is its 80th anniversary, and it has retained the same mission for which it was founded in 1934. It has, however, transformed its economic model and changed the way in which it fulfils that mission, in response to changing times.
The government grant now represents less than 20% of the British Council’s turnover. Entrepreneurship delivers the rest. This means that, at a time of declining public sector funding, it has been able to grow its influence for the UK. Some criticise this approach, seeing it as a deviation from its core function. In my view the critics are wrong. The mixed funding model is the engine that keeps the British Council’s global network in more than 100 countries running at a time of austerity. If we want to continue to benefit from the 80 years of relationships and experience that the council has established, it would be unwise to change the mixed funding model that has proved its worth for the UK.
The British Council’s establishment in 1934 was a conscious effort to counter extremist views, and spread values of democracy and free speech around the world. It has continued that work by taking the long view and maintaining a lasting presence in countries, even in circumstances when other forms of engagement are no longer possible. That continuity of presence and purpose has been central to the organisation’s success, and in creating the conditions for sharing our values and strengthening our business ties.
It was the British Council’s lasting presence in the countries of the former eastern bloc that proved so important 25 years ago. Staying in places such as Romania and Poland through the tough times meant that it was able to support these countries’ transformation into liberal open democracies. I could go on and give a number of other examples, but time does not permit.
The British Council’s cultural and artistic work, in today’s digitally connected world, is based on reciprocity—that is, on developing a shared understanding of the world through collaborative effort. This is the approach that we are currently using, for example, to work with South Africa to mark the celebration of 20 years of democracy, which will benefit not only South Africans but those in the UK.
The British Council’s school in Madrid, Spain, which opened in the 1940s during the years of dictatorship, offers bilingual and bicultural education, and was quite explicit about its intension to inculcate values of freedom, honesty, integrity and creativity. Now this school, in a different way, serves the same purpose as the British Council’s work in South Africa—promoting the aspects of our national life that are attractive to others, not least the excellence of our education and the values that underpin it.
This work does not set out overtly to export “British values”, but it is an indirect way of sharing important values—by keeping conversations going and by keeping doors open to exchange views, ideas and beliefs. Reciprocity and longevity are central to the British Council’s success, but those values do not always fit comfortably with the rather utilitarian and short-term views of those looking for immediate results.
The British Council has always had a degree of separation from the political arena and has had operational independence. Repeated studies and recent reports have shown that soft power should be, or appear to be, not closely state-directed. Those reports build on the Foreign Secretary’s concept of a networked world, which best sums up how the council will need to operate in future. That means that the British Council needs not only support but better understanding of how it operates and why. As the salience of soft power has increased, it is all the more important that the factors which have made the British Council so effective for 80 years are protected.
I should therefore be grateful if the Minister would assure the House that the Foreign Secretary and the FCO will do all that is required to ensure that the British Council’s entrepreneurial model and ethos will be supported. Any attempts to tamper with it or change it, as suggested by some, will be resisted—albeit with the promise of continuous improvement from the British Council. It would also be helpful to get an assurance that the British Council’s operational independence from government will be maintained.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that when the clock reaches four, they have had four minutes.
Lord Sheikh (Con):
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate. I think that we all appreciate the importance of soft power in the modern world. We must therefore make friends and influence people overseas. I am very supportive of the BBC World Service and believe that it provides a truly valuable service, but I shall focus today on the work of the British Council.
The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, building lasting relationships between the UK and other countries. The British Council has been building long-term trust, people-to-people connections and international opportunities for the UK for more than 80 years. Each year, it works with millions of people on six continents and in more than 100 countries. It is an essential part of our international effort to promote British values and interests.
I speak as someone who has benefited from the work of the British Council. Growing up in Uganda, I found the British Council to be an extremely helpful and informative organisation. The regional representative of the British Council used to come to our school to give talks. There was a British Council library in my home town, and I used to borrow books from it frequently. It was through the British Council that I learnt about Britain—its constitution, institutions and values. Indeed, my first knowledge of this House doubtless came as a result of the British Council. Little did I know that I would end up in your Lordships’ House one day—I would never have dreamt that when I was young.
I came to the UK to study by myself, and my family arrived later. When I came to Britain, I stayed in a British Council residence: first in Knightsbridge and, following that, in Lancaster Gate. The council also helped me to find private accommodation in London and once, when I was once in hospital following an injury, a lady from the British Council used to come to see me frequently.
I have nothing but admiration for what the British Council does. I have continued to support it in my work ever since. I have travelled a great deal abroad and have spoken to representatives of the British Council all around the world, including in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Jordan and Nepal.
The British Council does admirable work, but in this country, at least, it is not good at telling people what it does. We must therefore publicise its work. I was pleased to learn that only 22% of the British Council’s funding comes from government, with 63% coming in the form of fees and income from services. By 2015, government funding will be less than 20%. I am pleased that the British Council seeks to maximise earned income to minimise the cost to the public of its activities.
The activities of the British Council can be summarised under the following headings: English examinations, language school accreditation, arts, education and society and overseas development assistance. As noble Lords will be aware, the British Council’s activities are under review, with the findings expected later this year. I would like to add my views on the subject.
I have already said that more needs to be done to promote the work of the British Council. I also think that the British Council could move out of central government, with its multifarious activities taken over by the private sector. I also believe that we need to put more power in the hands of local groups. The British Council is already a very good employer in the areas in which it operates, but individual facilities must be given more autonomy. However, they must work hand in hand with our embassies to ensure a joined-up approach to our overseas activities.
I am passionately supportive of the British Council and hope that the Government continue to give it the support it needs to carry on with the work that it does so well.
Lord Eames (CB):
My Lords, the House must be in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us the opportunity to debate this Motion. The expertise that is exposed in the contributions that we are listening to from all sides of the House speaks for itself. Perhaps I may presume to add two human faces in support of the BBC’s overseas programmes.
The first takes me back to the days of the hostage crisis in Beirut, in Lebanon, when I was privileged to lead the efforts on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury to gain the release of the hostages—British and Irish. I remember well the incident when a student in Beirut, with the gunfire surrounding us and the thunder of the gunfire filtering the air, said to me, “But for the BBC, we wouldn’t know what the outside world thought is going on”. That was a simple incident.
More recently, I visited North Korea, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted in his words a few minutes ago. From a most unlikely source, there was a remark that will live with me for a very long time. Obviously, I cannot disclose the complete circumstances, but the words speak for themselves. “Where”, he said to me, “is the BBC?”. If you knew the person who said that, the circumstances and the position that he held, it would set the balance right of many of the impressions that we have of what is going on in North Korea. Those words speak louder than statistics, transmission problems and the facilities needed, and I convey them to the House with great feeling.
In the present situation, vastly different to 1932 when this all began, with global conflicts and the transition from hard to soft power, the tactics that the BBC now employ to maintain that lifeline—a lifeline of voice, sound and meaning on behalf of our nation—must be maintained. Those of us who have contributed to the BBC’s overseas service, who welcome it and admire it, are among those most anxious that, in this period of financial change, everything is done in the new circumstances to maintain and advance the global role of such a service.
I implore the Minister, when she considers what she hears in this debate, to give serious consideration to those of us who worry that although a budget may be set forth with great hope and vision, there are always circumstances in which political reasons can be found to change it. I, for one, plead with her, as one who has been impressed with the way in which she listens to arguments such as this, to reassure the House that those fears are unfounded.
Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab):
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate, but I regret that he included the word “values” in the Motion. Not surprisingly, he said little about values in his opening remarks and made no attempt to clarify what those values are. That is my point.
We had a debate in this Chamber two weeks ago on the question, which was utterly inconclusive. It is instructive that both the British Council and the World Service in the briefings provided to noble Lords for this debate tried to define British values. The British Council described them as “respect and tolerance”; the World Service listed “fairness, integrity and independence”. “British values” means different things to different people; there is very little consensus on what the values are. Therefore, until such time as there is a settled view on what British values involve, it should not be seen as the role of the British Council, or indeed the World Service, to promote them, because what are they promoting?
The British Council and the World Service are institutions which I have supported and worked for and with for many years, and I have the greatest respect and admiration for them. Both have had to adapt to the effects of cuts in funding in recent times and each has accepted the challenges that brought with a determination to maintain their high standards and long reach. The British Council has had to bear a reduction in its FCO grant of around a quarter between the year 2009-10 and now. Rather than scale back its activities, it has grown its self-generated income and is on course to fill that gap. That is very much to be welcomed.
Every year with the assistance of the British Council more than 2 million people in more than 90 countries sit international exams leading to qualifications that improve their employment and life prospects in an increasingly competitive global market. However, the council’s activities form a two-way street, because by presenting the best of the UK’s cultural assets abroad they attract tourists, students and inward investment to the UK and build links between higher education institutions in the UK and overseas, expanding the exchange of research and innovation which benefits our economy.
The Foreign Secretary is currently considering the recommendations of the council’s triennial review and I hope he will ensure that when implemented it adequately reflects the fact that the British Council is a long-established and continuing success story which does Britain proud. Quite simply, if it did not exist, it would need to be invented. The same can be said of the World Service, which reaches more people worldwide than any other international broadcaster. Independent surveys consistently rate the BBC as the most trusted and best-known international news provider, as other noble Lords have already mentioned.
Three months ago the World Service underwent a fundamental change in its funding model. It was predicted prior to that—not least by a committee in the other place—that the move to licence-fee funding would see a reduction in services and quality of programmes, yet we hear that its funding this year has actually increased by more than £6 million. That is obviously very welcome, because despite suffering funding cuts in 2010 which led to the loss of a fifth of its staff, the World Service weathered that storm and today it can be said to be in very good health, with audiences are up by some 9 million on last year. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Alton, himself who referred to the situation in Russia and Ukraine as being largely responsible for that. At times of crisis, people know where to turn for dispassionate, fact-based reporting, delivered professionally by World Service staff on the ground.
I believe there remain concerns about governance. The man in charge of the World Service, Peter Horrocks, does not have the top-table seat in the BBC enjoyed by his predecessors, and secure guarantees are required over safeguarding the distinct nature of the World Service into the future. Equally, it is essential that the World Service should be taken into consideration when conversations around the BBC’s charter review and decisions about the future of the licence fee take place.
It is to be hoped that those in senior positions both at the BBC and indeed in government fully appreciate the huge asset that the World Service is both to the BBC and to Britain.
Lord Ramsbotham (CB):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on obtaining this important debate. I am particularly glad that he mentioned the wider context of the soft power role of the World Service and the British Council in promoting British values and interests. I declare an interest as a member of the recent Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence and as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy.
My own practical experience of the BBC World Service was honed in Kenya and it became an affection when I was commanding a base on the remote border between Borneo and Indonesia during confrontation. My appreciation of the British Council was warmed four weeks ago when, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt, I visited Cairo. We were very impressed, first by the energy of the director of the British Council there, and secondly by the fact that he brought together some very interesting young students of English from Egypt who were able to explain to us the youth verdict on what was going on in Syria in a way in which we might not have otherwise realised.
I want to concentrate very briefly on three recommendations in the Select Committee’s report and say something about each of them. First, we stated:
“We are concerned that the Government are not currently doing enough to support the BBC World Service, and we urge the BBC and the Government to ensure between them that the BBC World Service’s budget is not reduced any further in real terms, and the opportunities for coordination across multiple platforms to deliver content are taken”.
The Government said that they disagreed with our recommendation but warmed us a bit by saying that they were currently working on a memorandum of understanding between the Government and the BBC.
Secondly, we stated:
“The Committee supports the use of DFID funding to assist the BBC’s development work, and we urge further consideration of how this type of support can be expanded”.
We were very glad that the Government welcomed the support for DfID funding because that opens a much wider consideration of the way DfID funding is applied anyway.
Thirdly, on the British Council, we recommended:
“The Government must ensure that the British Council is properly resourced”.
The response we got was:
“The Government is firmly committed to the work of the British Council and recognises its significant contribution to the UK’s strategic interests through its work … and the Government will continue to work with the British Council on future funding”.
I took particular encouragement from the use of the words “United Kingdom’s strategies” because they suggest that soft power was being consider in wider terms than it had been before.
Reverting briefly to the committee, witnesses we had were effusive in their praise of both institutions. In particular I was very glad that the trust they both engendered was mentioned. I like to think that the tide is now flowing in favour of soft power and I am very glad that the momentum initiated by my noble friend’s debate today may be maintained both by the debate on the soft power report and in the national security strategy 2015 when that is produced.
Viscount Colville of Culross (CB):
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Alton for securing this debate. I declare an interest as a producer at the BBC.
Noble Lords know the great reach of the World Service but I have my own experience. I was filming with the Evenki reindeer nomads in Siberia, 1,000 miles north of the Arctic circle. One evening, the young blades were going to take us to their nomad camp. It was supposed to be a three-hour journey. Unfortunately, they got a bit lost and it turned into a six-hour journey. The temperature was a little parky—minus 46 degrees. When finally we arrived at the camp, you can imagine our relief when we were shown our tent. Inside, warming the tent, was a marvellous gummy old Evenki lady who was chewing reindeer ligament to make it into thread for sewing. She looked at us and said, “I am so very pleased to meet the BBC. I have listened to you all my life. I have listened to your services through communism, through the chaos of democracy and through the autocracy of Putin. It shaped my view of the world. It shaped my view of my country”. I found that moving and very warming, literally.
Many noble Lords have spoken of the extraordinary work done by the World Service to project soft British power across the world and to shine a bright light of truth in places where it is being smothered by darkness and lies. I want to talk about the extraordinary work of my colleagues in the Russian and Ukrainian service of the BBC, who have seen the biggest audience increase of any service this year, to 14.5 million visitors monthly. It is not surprising as the Russian broadcast media has almost completely been taken over by government supporters pumping out nationalism and anti-western sentiment.
Earlier this year, when the Russian Government annexed Crimea, the anchor on the main Russian news announced that Americans must not forget that Russia can turn them to dust in 10 minutes. That was the anchor, not the Defence Minister or a nationalist. However, he has a point. Russia has a nuclear arsenal, an increasingly disciplined and well equipped army and a leader who appears to be prepared to attack its neighbours.
One of the great casualties of this year’s events in Ukraine, as in so many other conflicts, has been truth. The people of the Russia and Ukraine need disinterested news reporting to understand what is happening in their countries, and the BBC is providing that. I cite an example. In May this year, a bus carrying separatist troops was attacked outside Donetsk airport, and a number of separatists were killed. On that day’s evening news the Russians claimed a Red Cross vehicle carrying injured separatists to hospital had been hit by Ukrainian jets and 30 people killed. A Russian website even Photoshopped a picture of the Red Cross symbol onto the side of the vehicle. The BBC simply showed a picture of the vehicle, which did not have the Red Cross symbol on it. It reported that a vehicle with separatists on board had been attacked, it was not known how many were dead, and it was not known at that moment who had attacked them. The values of BBC journalism mean that reporters do not just say what they know but, equally importantly, say what they do not know. However, it is not just what is reported; it is also the tone and words used to report, which is so crucial. The Russians call the fighters in eastern Ukraine “supporters of federalism” and the Ukrainian media call them “terrorists”, while the BBC simply calls them “separatists”.
The inclusion of World Service funding in the licence fee means that whatever comes out of the charter discussions will affect it. We are told that another freeze in the licence fee would be a brilliant outcome, an improvement on the threatened move to a subscription service, which is being talked about. I ask the Minister to make sure that the funding is protected. People ask me why the licence fee payers of Britain should pay for the rest of the world to get the BBC when we do not benefit. In fact, World Service reporting increasingly affects the BBC journalism we receive in this country. Journalists from the World Service are used to report on our main news broadcasts in Britain. Last week, for instance, when there was the attack on Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine, there were no main BBC reporters present. The World Service reporters were the only people there. If you cut them you will also cut the news service that we receive here.
The BBC World Service is a global treasure which must be guarded and nurtured. I am so very proud to be the citizen of a country that supports an organisation transmitting what I see as British values: truth, free speech and democracy.
Lord Loomba (LD):
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this important debate. In my brief contribution, I want to focus on India and education.
Taking first the BBC World Service, one of the many advantages of this wonderful institution is that radio broadcasts are available in Hindi. This increases the awareness of British current affairs enormously, which contributes to the cultural interaction between India and Britain. The English-language programmes provide something similar. For example, the “World Have Your Say” programme facilitates discussion of current affairs and cultural ideas, while documentaries increase knowledge and interest in British culture and events. Such programming can also assist in British efforts in international development, through the promotion of British values and increasing mutual understanding between the two nations.
Importantly, the English-language broadcasts also encourage the listeners in their own use of English and therefore provide an invaluable learning tool. There are resources devoted to the BBC “Learning English” programme, which provides free language-teaching resources to those studying English in India. It is clearly of great benefit to everyone involved that the ability to speak English is spread as far as possible. For example, many English speakers in India are of great benefit to British industry in India.
I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government have ever carried out any focused research on how far the BBC World Service is responsible for educating listeners about British culture and British values, particularly in India. Have people been asked why they choose to listen to the BBC World Service? Do we know what they get out of it? Do we know what they would like to see more of? I would be interested in the answers to these questions. If they are not being asked, I would suggest that perhaps they should be.
Turning to the British Council, the UK-India Education and Research Initiative is a programme that develops leadership, innovation and technical skills in leading educational institutions in India. In turn, this develops partnerships between these institutions and British universities, as well as with industry in the United Kingdom. This programme is supported by both the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; but the initiative I have highlighted would not have happened without the British Council. It is a vital tool in promoting Britain to the rest of the world, and is invaluable in shaping the way in which Britain is viewed.
Lord Empey (UUP):
My Lords, there is so much unanimity about the House today that we are in danger of being over-repetitive. However, in a world increasingly dominated by social media, which shape the views of so many impressionable young people around the world, the World Service can provide the United Kingdom with an opportunity to project in a professional and authoritative way our views on key global events. One has only to look at the propaganda that is being put out on social media by the ISIS people, who are brainwashing a young generation of people, including, sadly, people in our own country. But the one thing we do not want the World Service to become is an instrument of propaganda. It must retain a degree of independence and objectivity; otherwise its credibility throughout the world will be lost.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who is not now in his place, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, mentioned the position of Ukraine and Russia. I did not think that I would see in this day and age Cold War-style propaganda coming from Putin and his people. The reports that I listened to were so outrageous, so inaccurate and so misleading. Indeed, they were very dangerous because we know from experience that inappropriate reporting can lead to actual death and destruction on the ground. The material that was coming from Russian sources was absolutely outrageous. Having a source, an anchor, from which people can get reliable information, particularly if it comes from one of our own institutions, is something about which we should be proud.
I have to say that I have some more general concerns about the BBC. I know that the House will return to that issue when the discussions on the licence fee and so on come up. The BBC has perhaps lost focus in recent years. We have seen senior executives coming to the other place to defend the indefensible. That is most unfortunate. However, it is things such as the World Service that give many people in this country a sense of pride that there is something there to defend, protect and ensure. I often wonder whether the production of mindless game shows and other such programmes is really the core of the public service broadcasting ethos that I am sure many people in this House would wish to protect. However, we will have an opportunity to return to that issue. We certainly have not heard the last of it.
I am sure that the Minister will wish to look at the accountability aspect. The report from the Select Committee asked, “Do we want to have proper accountability to Parliament for the activities of the BBC in general?” We certainly do. If the accountability mechanisms are there, a lot of the problems that we have had in recent years will no longer be so strong.
In summary, I must say that the World Service is something that we are very proud of; it is something that is very successful; and I sincerely hope that it is long spared to promote truth and justice throughout the world.
Baroness Coussins (CB):
My Lords, I will focus on the ways in which the World Service and the British Council need and use foreign languages. I do not question for a moment the importance of teaching and learning English around the world. However, in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English.
I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, whose secretariat is provided by the British Council, and as one of the vice-chairs of the British Council All-Party Group.
The World Service operates in 28 languages. Five of the language services were cut following the spending review in 2012 and others were reconfigured to reflect changing use of media. The Hindi service was one of those cut, but then reprieved—I believe because of a commercial funding partnership. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify how the very successful Hindi service is now funded and whether it is now secure. What of other language services that were not reprieved? For example, I believe that there is no longer a service in Spanish to Cuba, or in Portuguese to Africa. Perhaps the Minister could say whether these two have been reviewed. It is the Foreign Secretary who decides whether to open or close a language service. I should like to know what the criteria are, what the process is, and who else is consulted.
The World Service plans to boost language service websites, do more multilingual programming and more translation of key TV programmes. Multilingual journalists do such a great job because they bring not only language skill but the local and cultural knowledge that goes with it. They can analyse and interpret, interview and comment, in a way that no monolingual could ever hope to. However, the pipeline of talent for multilingual journalists is in danger of drying up. The UK lags well behind our international competitors and things are getting worse. GCSE take-up has improved but there is an alarming drop at A-level. Forty-four British universities have scrapped language degrees since the year 2000. We are not taking advantage of the linguistic talent of the 4.2 million people in the UK whose first language is not English but who speak some of the languages in demand for business, diplomacy and the World Service. These include Korean, Arabic, Turkish, Mandarin, Pashto and Farsi.
The British Council plays an important part in keeping this pipeline open. It supports thousands of students every year through the Erasmus programme. It brings native speakers into UK classrooms—nearly 2,000 last year—through the language assistant scheme. Its partnership with HSBC promotes Chinese. Other schemes support school partnerships with francophone African countries to support French, and with Brazil to develop Portuguese. Despite this, only 9% of English 15 year-olds are competent in a foreign language beyond a basic level compared with 42% across 14 other countries. Languages are compulsory up to age 16 in 69% of independent schools, but in only 16% of state schools. It will be 2025 before we see the full impact of the Government’s policy on key stage 2 languages. In the mean time, a whole range of relationships, services and functions which collectively constitute the kind of soft power spearheaded by the World Service and the British Council could be unsustainable unless the Government get a grip our languages deficit.
I ask the Minister, finally, whether she will initiate a coherent cross-departmental languages strategy. The FCO has continued responsibility for the World Service language services, as well as being the department with a most excellent resource itself in the language centre, so it surely has the authority and the enlightened self-interest to take this step.
Baroness Hooper (Con):
My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing it so thoroughly. Because they operate overseas and mainly to overseas audiences, both the BBC World Service and the British Council—particularly the latter, perhaps—are not widely understood and appreciated in this country. More should be done to raise their profiles with the taxpayers who fund them.
Given the number of excellent and informative contributions today and the quantity of briefing that has been put together, as well as the Select Committee report on soft power, there is clearly plenty of evidence of the valuable roles that these institutions play in promoting the United Kingdom and its values and interests worldwide. So I do hope that this debate is well reported. It may be that the British Council’s cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will also be helpful in bringing its role to the attention of the British public.
As a member of the all-party group on the British Council, I intend to focus on this side of the debate. The all-party group which is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has given us, in both Houses of Parliament, the opportunity to hear from a series of regional directors who operate in the Middle East, China, Latin America, Afghanistan and elsewhere. From these meetings, the way in which the British Council’s educational role, in particular the teaching of English, visibly supports the UK efforts to maintain and increase trade and commerce is made very clear. Sadly, these meetings are not always well attended by Members of Parliament, which suggests that many do not perhaps consider this area of their work as a high priority. I think that is terrible. It means in turn that when budget and funding issues arise, there may be insufficient champions of these institutions in the other place. Perhaps after the next election we can do something about that.
In the few minutes that remain, I would like to revert to an issue that I raised with your Lordships on other occasions. As has been said, the British Council does valuable work overseas in promoting British universities and other educational establishments in selection processes for fellowships and scholarships, and also in encouraging the formation of student alumni associations in various countries in order to maintain the links that have been formed. I am particularly aware of this in Mexico, because there are significant numbers of Mexican students who come to this country and many of them become leading figures in the political world and in industrial fields. Maintaining that link is important and valuable.
I believe there is also a role for the British Council in this country. In the old days there was a British Council presence in most university cities—my noble friend Lord Sheikh referred to this. The British Council provided a centre not only for overseas students to meet and relax but also where they could meet British people. Too often nowadays students come to this country and remain in an international grouping, having little or no contact with British people or the British way of life. It is not likely that we will be able to return to the concept of a British Council house in every university city, but if the British Council were to take a lead in providing co-ordination in this area, I ask my noble friend whether the Government would be prepared to support it.
The Earl of Sandwich (CB):
My Lords, honest and accurate reporting plays a vital role in conflict, as my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames reminded us just now. We all benefit from the risks that these men and women take in the course of their duties. We would do well to remember them more often.
I sincerely congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on securing this further instalment of a time-honoured debate. The BBC World Service has a well deserved reputation for the integrity and honesty of its reporting and for its diplomatic outreach. It is also highly respected among news reporters themselves, who are the best judges of what can and cannot be trusted. I have some experience of the World Service in developing countries. For example, I thought highly of Focus on Africa for many years and I occasionally contributed to it.
I was pleased to learn that the Afghan service is not winding down in line with ISAF’s defence arrangements but will continue. The BBC reaches around 25% of those in Dari-speaking areas and 21% of those in Pashtun areas every week, which is quite a high proportion. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the FCO and DfID will continue to support programmes such as the radio soap opera “New Home, New Life” and “Afghan Woman’s Hour”. Many such programmes have international development content, as my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham mentioned, and a BBC survey found that 39% of listeners to “Afghan Woman’s Hour” were men learning about women’s issues such as domestic violence and equality of opportunity.
There have been other successes through the training of local journalists, including refugees: Yalda Hakim, who was born in Afghanistan in 1983 and fled with her family into Pakistan, later returned to Kabul as an Australian broadcast journalist and is currently working for BBC World News.
As has been said, it was a great disappointment to those who follow eastern Europe that under the 16% cuts proposed in the review several services were scheduled to close, including those in the western Balkans. This came at a time when the concept of European Union enlargement not only had become a priority but was one area where the EU could demonstrate considerable success. We have heard since then that through force of circumstance there seems to have been a change of heart. I understand that the Ukrainian service has been much more active, with more local journalists, and has trebled its audience. What changes have taken place in the coverage of events in eastern Europe? Are people there becoming limited to online and digital services, or do they benefit from the full range of live radio reporting?
It is an important time for our relations with Russia. The BBC’s Russian service seems to have continued and expanded its audience, but I would like to hear whether the Minister thinks it is going to confront the Kremlin’s hostile propaganda about the European Union. Incidentally, I recommend to colleagues the BBC’s monitoring service, which, in spite of cuts, still collects news from all around the world. This week, for instance, I learnt that the St Petersburg migration service has had 22,000 applications from would-be migrants and refugees from Ukraine—only on the World Service.
I will say a final word about the British Council, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter. Its office in Juba, South Sudan, remained open throughout the conflict last December. This is an excellent example of the transformative value of culture during conflict. The council has developed an amazing and daring range of projects, and I hope that it will be able to reopen its office and continue.
Lord Crisp (CB):
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on putting values and British interests centre stage, and indeed on linking them. We may not be able adequately to define British values, but I think that all the versions we have seen are pretty compatible with each other. I am also very clear that British values are central to the UK’s reputation and influence in the world. Like others, I see this around me in many different parts of the world.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Alton’s concerns about the resources and support for the World Service and the British Council, and will listen to the Minister’s answer with great interest. The report from the British Academy that has been referred to encouraged the Government to invest in and sustain soft-power institutions such as these over the long term and at arm’s length. That seems to me to be the right formula. That report also pointed out that everything British people do abroad is taken as a representation of the country or a projection of Britain abroad, and it referred to the compartmentalisation of government on this. Those are the points that I want to take up, and I shall ask three questions about them regarding these two great institutions—in other words, how they link with other British activity abroad.
I shall start with what I know about, which is health. You cannot now run the Department of Health or the NHS without having a global perspective on national policy. This means many things, from sharing in the management of global academics to, just as importantly, the mutuality of learning and sharing of research in policy development. There is now an established tradition of health as foreign policy and health diplomacy. I am delighted that the Government have set up Healthcare UK to lead this work and to develop these relationships, building largely on the NHS; what could be more emblematic of British values than the NHS? I believe that this is true in other areas and assume that therefore most, if not all, domestic departments need to have some kind of foreign policy, if you like. I wonder how strongly government departments are encouraged to develop relationships with the World Service and the British Council to develop this role.
The comments about activity being a projection of Britain abroad also reflect the importance of civil society and the links of all sorts between hospitals, schools, villages and commercial organisations that exist across countries and continents. Moreover, in today’s atomising society, people-to-people links are more important than ever. People get their news, information and opinions from diverse sources. People are influenced by people like them. National boundaries have become largely meaningless in the way in which people relate to each other around the world. In that context, I also note that today’s Britain is rich in diversity of cultural backgrounds and languages, and in familial and religious links that circle the globe. These, too, are a projection of Britain abroad, a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute and perhaps second-by-second source of interactions globally.
These reflections leave me with three questions for the Minister. What can she say about relationships between domestic departments, such as health and education, and the World Service and the British Council? Do these organisations reflect the full range of interactions and possibilities, or is there more that should be done to encourage these departments to engage? Secondly, what contribution can and does the very diversity of the UK population make to the UK’s soft power? That question may go a bit beyond the remit of this debate but it links to my third question. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s reflection on how effective the Government think these two great institutions, the World Service and the British Council, are in using and harnessing the power of electronic communications and social media to project and develop the UK’s reputation globally.
Lord Parekh (Lab):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on securing this debate. I shall introduce three reservations about the discussion that we have had. First, I do not think that it is a good idea to couple the BBC with the British Council. We should not lump them together because they play different roles in our policies. The British Council is expected to promote Britain abroad in a way that the BBC is not; the latter is an independent organisation and expected to be a voice of impartiality and objectivity.
Secondly, although both are asked to promote British values and interests, we are not entirely sure what British values are specifically in mind, especially in relation to other countries that share almost all our values. When we talk about British interests, we also need to bear in mind that there can be genuine disagreement between two political parties, or between the British Council and the BBC itself, about what British interests are. We should therefore allow for a divergence of views.
The third thing that slightly worries me is the notion of soft power. I have always felt uneasy about it because it seems to be an oxymoron; if it is too soft then it cannot be power, and if it is power then it cannot be too soft. I generally find that if everything is geared to the mobilisation of power, we are in danger of corrupting almost everything that we value because it then becomes an instrument of mobilising power. I want to stay away from the language of “hard power” or “soft power”, whatever “soft power” may mean, and talk instead in terms of moral authority. We as a country want to be trusted and respected; our intentions should be recognised as honourable and other people should want to listen to us. When we express an opinion, people should say, “That’s a mature society reflecting a view. We’d better hear it”. This is not the same as soft power because it is simply us being ourselves, living up to our own ideals and, in the process, exerting a silent influence on others, not deliberately but through people recognising that we have something to say and respecting our moral stature.
Having got rid of these three general points, in the minute that I have left I want to turn to three questions that I have for the Minister.
First, so far as the BBC is concerned, people are simply amazed that we in this country should have an organisation which we fund and over which we can exercise control and yet we restrain ourselves and allow it to speak freely, including criticising the country. The BBC already exemplifies an extremely important value. That means that we should keep a distance between the BBC and the FCO.
Secondly, we are not entirely clear about the role that ethnic minorities can play in projecting Britain abroad. They are our ambassadors and they should be invited to play an important role in the thinking of the BBC and the British Council. I am thinking, for example, of the fact that the Foreign Secretary has announced that we will be having a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. That is one thing in which the Indian community here could be more effectively involved—certainly, the Gandhi Foundation, of which I happen to be the president. The Gandhi Foundation and other bodies have views on what kind of statue to have and how it should be organised and so on, and I recommend that they should be involved.
Lastly, while the British Council has an important role to play in projecting Britain abroad, I am not entirely sure that it has always been as imaginative and inventive as it could be. Great changes are taking place in the world at large—in India, for example. The British Council could play a major role in bringing the debates that are taking place in India to Britain. Likewise great change is taking place in Britain and those debates could be projected to India so that people can become familiar with how profoundly Britain is changing. I hope I have made some of the points I wanted to make and I would welcome a response from the Minister.
Lord Jay of Ewelme (CB):
My Lord, I have great admiration and respect for both the British Council and the BBC World Service but I want to focus in the few minutes I have today on the BBC World Service. If I may be allowed one small comment on the title of the debate, I would have preferred to talk about the BBC World Service as promoting British interests through promoting British values, which would have guaranteed the independence and objectivity that are so important to it and to which other noble Lords have referred.
The BBC World Service has built up a huge and justified reputation for clear and objective reporting of developments around the world, and it is listened to for that reason. The more closed and controlled the regime abroad to which it is broadcasting, the more important its broadcasts and values are to the people who listen to it. That is why a number of noble Lords who have spoken today, and whose views I share, would very much like the BBC World Service to be broadcasting to North Korea. I know there are difficulties in that but I think it is an aspiration that it should keep.
Those who listen to the BBC World Service in countries like North Korea know that the broadcasts come from London but what is even more important is knowing that they are independent and unbiased. For that reason I, for one, am glad that the World Service is now funded from the BBC’s budget and not from the FCO’s. When I was in the Foreign Office and travelling, for example, in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, I found a certain wry scepticism as to whether the BBC World Service could be genuinely independent when funded by the state. The BBC is seen as pretty independent, largely because every Government thinks it is part of the Opposition. That seems to me to be a better place for the BBC World Service to be. I am sure that Members of this House and others will put the necessary pressure on the BBC to ensure that the World Service gets the support and the funding that it needs.
Perhaps this is rather daring in the light of what one or two others have said, but I want to finish by saying a word or two about the values that we hope the BBC World Service and the British Council will promote. The British Council sums those up pretty well in its latest annual report, speaking of our openness and pluralism as a society, to which I would add tolerance. These values come under attack from time to time, sometimes from within, sometimes from without, but they seem to have an enduring quality. They include an openness to ideas; an outward-looking society; a free if, we hope, responsible press; and a plural society, open to and respecting different cultures and faiths as long as they respect us too. We do not always keep to that, of course, and our press and the social media tend to focus on our failings and not our success. I thought it sad last week that more prominence was given to the intemperate remarks of a young Briton in Syria than to the appeal by British imams, Sunni and Shia, for those who want to help those suffering in Syria and Iraq to do so through respectable and responsible charities rather than through fighting. I would add to that list of values a tolerance of others and a respect of others’ views at home and abroad. It seems to me that openness, pluralism and tolerance within a democratic society governed by the rule of law are important values in an unstable and rather dangerous world. The more that the BBC, particularly the World Service, can do to promote those values overseas in its own way, the more it is not just helping those who live in other societies but promoting British interests too.
Lord Luce (CB):
My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Jay that really what we are debating today is the promotion of British interests through British values. That is an important way of looking at it.
I want to go back to focusing on the excellent report of the Select Committee on soft oower, which my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham mentioned earlier. It highlighted the importance of not only the British Council and the BBC World Service but the Commonwealth in the promotion of British values and interests. I should like to see a strengthening of that connection between the Commonwealth, the British Council and the BBC. I do not need to deploy the arguments about the Commonwealth to this House. It represents 25% of the world’s population and a cross-section of nations, religions, cultures and values, but it has a common set of values through the Commonwealth Charter. I welcome the fact that, in paragraph 155 of the report to which I referred, the British Council talks about the need to not underplay the value of the Commonwealth to the United Kingdom. The report states:
“It brings countries together and celebrates and promotes shared values and experiences”.
An excellent example of this is the collaboration that is taking place now in Glasgow between the British Council, the BBC and the Commonwealth, where they are promoting British culture through music, dance, film, visual arts and the written word against the background of the Commonwealth Games, which are about to open. I am very proud of the fact that, as a former Arts Minister, I nominated Glasgow to be the European City of Culture in 1990. Another example is the collaboration between the BBC, the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat connecting a network of pupils aged between seven and 14 in 100,000 schools throughout the Commonwealth. I can think of no better way of strengthening soft-power links than through children at school, using the Commonwealth, the British Council and the BBC as the asset.
I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, does she recognise that the collaborative project in Glasgow could have an enormous impact within the Commonwealth as a whole if it does not end at the time of the Commonwealth Games but is built upon thereafter? Secondly, does she agree that the 53 Commonwealth countries should make sure that their work features in any long-term planning at the British Council and the BBC, and that any reports that they make should embrace the Commonwealth approach? I am not suggesting that any of this should be at the expense of the work that the British Council and the BBC do outside the Commonwealth but I think we are throwing away a real asset and benefit to Britain if do not urge closer collaboration between those three groups.
Baroness Berridge (Con):
My Lords, whether the BBC World Service can fulfil its role is dependent on where it is broadcast. The BBC charter states that it should deliver news to,
“audiences with the least access to high quality impartial news”.
Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel and Aung San Suu Kyi are just a few of the notable modern heroes who testify to the importance of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC World Service when information is scarce. However, at a time when promoting British values is a role for our schools, the role of the BBC World Service in that task should not be underestimated. There are more than 2 million listeners here in the UK, but when I checked the annunciator in my office this morning I noticed that the World Service is not broadcast through our channels here. Perhaps that is something that we may look at remedying in the light of today’s debate.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in congratulating the BBC today. In light of the military coup in Thailand and its effect on free information, today marks the start of a digital news stream in Thai and English. I also commend the BBC for finding funds at such short notice for that service. The UK’s contribution to aid in Syria for the refugees is a stunning £600 million. Has DfID made sure that the many people residing in refugee camps who have access to television and radio have access to the BBC World Service? That is not conditionality, it is merely common sense.
Two vital countries, North Korea and South Korea, enjoy no radio broadcasts in either English or Korean by the BBC World Service. South Korea, a G20 country, the 15th largest economy in the world, with bilateral trade with the UK of £500 million a year, has no broadcast. Surely BBC broadcasts to that peninsula, promoting our interests and values, would increase that.
North Korea has a Cold War information embargo and is ranked 178th out of 179 countries for freedom of access to information. Why, then, is the BBC World Service not there? The BBC cites two main reasons. First, do North Korean people have a means to listen? That is, of course, hard to establish in a closed country but a 2010 survey of defectors found that 27% listened to foreign radio before escaping. Surely there were similar issues during the Cold War when the BBC broadcast. Of course, the Chinese might jam the signal to their 2 million ethnic Korean population, and perhaps only a small percentage of the North Korean population would be reached. However, the BBC funds minute services: in the Uzbek language to 400,000 listeners, and in Tamil to an audience of 200,000. The second reason given is that it would cost about £1 million to launch the service. However, surely the option of funding this from top-up advertising, as happens in Berlin, could be considered. The radio service would cover Seoul, which is a huge market, and advertising on the Korean-language website would surely be an avenue to explore.
The BBC is innovating technologically at break-neck speed, but is there such innovation around funding? Could it not even attempt to crowd-fund this? Perhaps more conventionally, can my noble friend the Minister outline whether DfID funding could be made available to fund such a service?
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea by Justice Michael Kirby claimed that the practices of the North Korean Government were so appalling that they conjured up,
“images of the Holocaust and the great suffering of the Jewish people and other minority groups in Nazi Germany”.
Yet despite these violent barriers that prevent ordinary North Koreans from receiving information from the outside world, many still do. I grew up during the deep recession of the 1980s, and we saw the importance then of broadcasting to closed, mainly communist, countries. If the North Korean people are brave enough to try and listen, we should broadcast.
Lord Wilson of Tillyorn (CB):
My Lords, like others, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for the chance to debate these two terribly important institutions. A good deal has been said about soft power, and I am tempted to cite a moral tale from classical Chinese Taoism: the power of water. Water appears to be the most flexible, malleable thing that there is, but it is about the strongest thing there is. You can try to dam it, you can try to divert it, but it will always get through. That is not quite a motto to put up on Broadcasting House, but it is something like that. If the British Council and the BBC keep going long enough, they get through.
I will concentrate on two areas concerning the British Council. I am a huge enthusiast for the BBC World Service and, like many others, I have depended on it for much of my life, but I have been involved, directly or indirectly, with the British Council—I declare that interest—having some time ago been a trustee for eight years and a chairman of the Scottish committee.
From practically nothing, the British Council operation in China has grown to an enormous size. There is a staff of something like 350. There are operations in Beijing and three other major cities. The potential there is colossal. It is said that some 300 million people in China wish to get more involved in the learning of English; that is of course something that the British Council does superbly. Another important thing, referred to by my noble friend Lady Coussins, is that the British Council goes in two directions: it also helps to recruit teachers of Chinese to come to this country and help people here to learn Chinese. That two-way process is valuable.
Another thing which comes from China is part of the process of “slow movement”. Many years ago I had a Chinese friend who had never left China. In the short period between the defeat of the Japanese and the victory of the Chinese communists he was involved with the British Council in Beijing; he did plays and learnt a lot. He was one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of British literature I have ever met. After all the vicissitudes and problems of the Cultural Revolution, he eventually became a rather significant person in the Chinese cultural scene.
That is part of my water analogy. It is a drip that started a long time ago, but the power of that drip is realised long after. I suggest that it means that you cannot create a balance and loss sheet every year for the British Council. You have to think long term, not just about what is happening in the course of one year.
The British Council is also an interesting example of an organisation in the UK which very early on realised the significance of devolution and the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament, and placed itself so that British Council Scotland was seen to be valuable. There were those who said that there should be a “Scottish Council”, but people quickly realised that that would be very expensive indeed; and that, more importantly, the British Council could do it as well if not better than a separate one. The work that could be done by a regional part of the British Council is invaluable. As my noble friend Lord Luce just said, British Council Scotland and the British Council being involved in the Commonwealth Games is a good example of that.
If, in September, the vote goes for a continuation of the union, it will be important not only that British Council Scotland shows that it represents culture in Scotland as well as in the whole of the UK, but that British Council Wales and British Council Northern Ireland and the regions of England also do the same. You need a British Council which is truly British, and not just part of an organisation.
Finally—if I am not going too far—on money from teaching English, it is sometimes said that the triennial review may say that the British Council’s role in teaching English should be reduced. I hope that the Minister may be able to assure us that that will not be the case. Of course there should be competition in teaching, but earning that amount of money is one of the things that enables that great organisation to do so much else as well.
Lord Cromwell (CB):
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Alton, as many have before me, for securing this debate. I will say a few words about the World Service.
Some years ago, I was in western Sudan on a motorcycle and needed to stop for the night at a village. I did so and, during the evening, the local policeman brought out into the street a radio on a table, around which the villagers gathered and listened to the news from London, as they clearly did every night. The policeman turned to me and commented, “The BBC. Now we know what’s really going on”. That story has always remained with me and I know that many of us in this House have other versions—from Timbuktu to Kathmandu.
There has also been reference to the World Service’s actions in Russia. I should alert your Lordships to some inaccuracy abroad. I was taken to a school in the far north of Russia. On my arrival, two small boys were heard to discuss my appearance. One said to the other, “A Lord, and still alive!”, to which the other shook his head disapprovingly, and said, “Yes, but without his dinner jacket”.
The World Service, as a source of balanced and accurate international coverage has earned an audience of many millions around the world. Whatever our definition of British values, it is clear that some states, now in the ascendant, do not share them and are spending heavily on their own version of soft power activities. If we believe in sharing our core values, we need more than ever to ensure that we are heard alongside and above those voices, not only those of states but also those of organisations. The World Service is such a powerful instrument of soft power quite simply because it is seen to be independent. It stands apart from the organs of the state; it projects a way of living and thinking, rather than current political policies, and it is famous for consistently telling the truth. That is the World Service brand.
That is also why successive financial cuts to the World Service over recent years have been so worrying. Time does not permit detailing them here, and others have touched on them. There have been expansions in other areas to set against this—the Persian and Arabic World Service TV audiences, for example; these now number some 50 million viewers. That growth in audience numbers, in a younger audience and with the wider range of media now deployed, suggests that the World Service is thriving. I celebrate that, as I am sure we all do.
I have two concerns. In seeking to be popular, the World Service must not become populist. In seeking to be contemporary, it should not become simply commercial entertainment. This is something which others have touched on, and I believe that there will be increasing pressure for it to do so.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, what hard evidence is there that moving on to the BBC licence fee has created a more stable basis for the World Service to plan ahead, or is it still beset by uncertainty? Secondly, does she agree that the World Service should grow and be at the heart of BBC strategic decision-making processes, and is that reflected in sufficient representation at board level? Thirdly, if the World Service budget does come under pressure, will the Government step in to assist, or will they simply declare it to be out of their hands?
As an outward-looking nation, the continued success of the World Service is vital to our future. It needs to grow in coverage, not to cut corners. That needs more resources year on year, not less.
Lord Bach (Lab):
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in this excellent debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing it, and all other speakers who have added to it immensely with their wide expertise.
Before beginning my remarks, I have to declare an interest—which has already been declared for me—as chairman of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group. The make-up of its officers is truly all-party. The secretary is a Conservative Member of Parliament and its treasurer is a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. As the House has heard, two of its vice-chairs are the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, from the Cross Benches, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, at whose feet I often sit to learn about foreign affairs and particularly about the British Council. I suppose that I should also declare an interest as a British Council child—my father was a senior British Council officer for many years.
I believe that both the institutions we are discussing are profoundly important to Britain’s place in the world. I call them institutions, as we have during the course of this debate, as a mark of respect. They have both earned that title over time. We have heard many examples of the good that they do in today’s world. They are something of which this country can be proud—not only in the field of soft power but because they are a significant part of modern Britain itself. We would be a much less civilised country without them. Each faces challenges of its own and I shall try to deal with some of these. However, if there is one overriding danger that both face, it is the danger of short-termism. That was exactly the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, made a few minutes ago. By that, I mean the tendency of Governments—Governments of all complexions—not to think sufficiently of the long term.
In the British Academy paper The Art of Attraction, which some of us were sent for this debate, the authors make that point powerfully in relation to both the World Service and the British Council. In the summary, it says:
“Despite their relatively low cost to the public purse, higher education, cultural organisations, arts and museums, the BBC World Service, and other soft power assets have not been protected from financial cutbacks. Neither have the substantial advantages of proper investment in them been fully recognised. If governments are patient enough to wait for the long-term gains, they will reap more benefits than by striving too hard to deploy these potential assets or by running them down for the quick fix of improving a budget deficit”.
“Governments would be well-advised … To invest in and sustain soft power institutions such as the BBC, the British Council, and the education system over the long term, and at arm’s length”.
I accept that it is much easier to say all that than actually to do it, but I believe that it is an argument that demands very serious consideration.
There was a general feeling that the cuts made to the World Service and the British Council following the 2010 spending review were unfortunate, to say the least. My right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary argued at the time that foreign policy should advance British values and British interests—which are almost exactly the same words as are used in this Motion. I am sure that the Government would agree with that statement. Of course the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could not be exempt from cuts, but was it wise to reduce expenditure on those two organisations, given their reach across the world and their significance to millions around our planet?
Here we are sometime later, and challenges still abound. However, there seems to be a consensus—certainly in this House, shared by the major political parties, but outside it too—that both these organisations are an essential part of the soft power agenda. This was recently reported on by the Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
The World Service reaches a huge proportion of people worldwide. Not surprisingly, it has been warmly praised in this debate, in the same way as it is praised outside Parliament too. The fact that so much jamming and blocking takes place is surely another huge compliment to this service. If its broadcasting did not have an effect, why would some Governments seek to prevent it? As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, stressed in his opening, we should be very concerned by increasing violence and intimidation against journalists the world over.
The move to licence fee funding is clearly a significant step, and it is good that the BBC has managed to put some—I think it would agree minor—new investment into the World Service. However, as has been said, the real test will come in a little while, when the charter is up for renewal. We will then be able to judge better what will happen in the future. Alternative sources of funding are of course a fact of life for the World Service; and I note the corporation’s belief that, at most, that could and should provide no more than 10% to 15% of World Service funding in the long term. The point has already been made about the new digital news stream in Thai and English. It is hard to overstate the crucial role that the World Service plays. Does the Minister agree that Her Majesty’s Government must do all in their power to ensure that such a crucial asset is not allowed to wither away?
The British Council has had to undergo huge changes in the past few years, too. A grant cut of 26%—down to £154 million in 2014-15—befell the British Council as a consequence of the spending review. On its own, that would have been near fatal. However, as we have heard, thanks to the leadership that the British Council has shown—great credit should be given to various previous chairmen of the trust, and in particular to the chief executive, Sir Martin Davidson—it has built up at least 75% of its income through fees and income from services and commercial activity. Frankly, that mixed economy of mixed funding has allowed the British Council to continue its vital work in nearly 150 countries and territories.
I shall conclude with a couple of points. First, these days the British Council plays a significant role in areas of the world where enormous changes take place every day. It is in the front line in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It represents British interests and does good in very difficult circumstances, from Syrian refugee camps to Ukraine. That demands special qualities from its staff, not least courage, whether they are local or British. The British Council libraries have of course been a council tradition for very many years, and around the world, many of them have been modernised. The old saying is apparently still true—that in various countries the protesters protest in the streets during the day, but in the evening they sit in the British Council library and talk. That is a reputation that the British Council should be proud of. The council has been very quick to respond to changes taking place in the world. Just look at its current work in countries such as Burma—where it has worked closely and very successfully with the FA Premier League—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and, as we have heard, Sudan.
Secondly, about two years ago I instigated a debate on the British Council in your Lordships’ House. One message that came across from around the House, and it is even more relevant today, is that the council must remain a public service organisation. That allows it to have the influence that it has. There was much concern that the balance between public funding and commercial income should not go too far in the latter direction. If the council should ever be considered primarily as a commercial organisation, its influence would gradually disappear. Any Government must constantly be alive to that danger. We await the outcome of the triennial review. Can the Minister tell us when we can expect it? This has been an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate. I also thank all noble Lords for a wide-ranging debate with incredibly thoughtful contributions.
As this House is aware, the Government are a strong supporter of both the BBC World Service and the British Council. Both organisations are hugely valued—and valuable—soft power assets for the United Kingdom. They are both, rightly, known and respected around the world for working hard to promote and model—dare I say, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—the UK’s values of fairness, dignity, liberty and justice. I have just given the noble Lord another list. However, I take his point on the difficulty of a full and final agreed list of definitions of British values. Quite rightly, today there has been much praise and support for both organisations. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and other noble Lords, that when the Government faced very difficult financial decisions to reduce the deficit, these organisations could not be exempt.
The BBC World Service has—as this House knows, and as we have heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Colville—a global reach. It provides audiences across the world with free, fair, impartial and informed national and international news, and its global mission and reach is even more important in these troubled times. It helps to protect the most basic of human rights—the right to freedom of opinion and expression—allowing people to receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. Although the World Service is no longer funded by the FCO, we remain fully committed to supporting its work and global role. We continue to work with the World Service in support of our mutual objectives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, asked specifically about funding. The BBC funding of the World Service for 2014-15 is £245 million—£6 million more than the final year of FCO funding. That includes £8 million of new investment in digital and multiplatform use programming. No announcement at this stage has been made on the funding for 2015-16. However, the BBC has publicly committed to maintaining at least the £245 million for the 2014-15 financial year, until the charter review.
The Foreign Secretary’s responsibilities have not changed. He will continue to agree with the BBC Trust the objectives, targets and priorities of the World Service, and the languages in which it is provided, and will continue to meet the chair of the BBC Trust annually to discuss performance and achievements.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and a number of other noble Lords referred to the Thai language service. The Foreign Secretary was of course pleased to approve the BBC’s approval of the establishment of a digital Thai language service. Mr Swire, the Minister for South East Asia, said that that was an “excellent idea” which would,
“help support the freedoms of expression and thought which are such critical parts of any successful democracy”,
and that the initiative,
“embodies what the BBC is all about”.
As my noble friend Lady Berridge said, it was a timely and much-needed move.
My noble friend Lord Loomba spoke about the BBC World Service India service. The BBC World Service carries out an extensive range of surveys in all its 27 foreign language services, which is included in its shaping of its service offering. Within that there is a survey of the specific language service that the noble Lord spoke about. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke about specific programmes in Afghanistan. While I cannot speak about the programming decisions or schedule of the BBC World Service regarding Afghanistan, I assure him of our ongoing commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and women’s rights. Indeed, DfID’s commitment to those very specific issues will form the backdrop of any support and funding.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Jay, my noble friend Lady Berridge and other noble Lords, spoke about the possibility of a BBC World Service presence in North Korea. We agree that there is a pressing need for a free, fair and impartial news service in the DPRK. Unfortunately, actions taken by the DPRK authorities severely limit the ability of North Koreans to listen to the cross-border broadcasts currently provided by a number of organisations.
I know that noble Lords have heard me talk about this from the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions; I am not sure that the same response will give much comfort, but I will give it anyway. In late 2013, following a review and having considered all the options, the BBC World Service board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful, impactful and cost-effective Korean language service. However, the BBC World Service has said that it is keeping the situation under review. However, I can assure noble Lords that, through our embassy in Pyongyang, the UK is one of the few countries able to engage directly with the North Koreans, complementing the efforts of others such as the United States who support broadcasts into North Korea.
My noble friend Lady Berridge spoke about a service to the whole of the Korean peninsula. I understand that the BBC has considered extending a service to the whole Korean peninsula as an option, but it concluded that that would be complicated from an editorial point of view. Due to the different markets, technological development and audience needs, a single editorial proposition serving such a wide population was not felt to be the most appropriate way forward. I also understand that the FM spectrum in South Korea is now full, and that permission for any further foreign news on a BBC FM frequency would not now be possible there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about languages generally. The BBC World Service is operationally, editorially and managerially independent. Decisions on the establishment of any language service are for the World Service to consider and, if appropriate, are then proposed to the Foreign Secretary to consider. The kinds of factors that are taken into account include feasibility, reach, impact and cost effectiveness. I will certainly pass specific comments on a coherent, cross-government language strategy to the Department for Education.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about coverage in eastern Europe. I can inform him that the BBC’s audience in Ukraine has trebled in recent times and now numbers about 600,000. The BBC’s Ukrainian and Russian services have been crucial to the BBC’s coverage of the current situation there, working with correspondents in country and with BBC news gathering to provide domestic and global news.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will continue to have responsibility for the licence fee settlement and charter review. The FCO will provide policy advice and support to the DCMS as appropriate. The long-term future of the BBC and the BBC World Service will be addressed in the next charter review—my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter, and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Alton, asked about that. As noble Lords are aware, the current BBC charter ends on 31 December 2016. The Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport can start the review process and begin considering options at any point before the charter expires.
The noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, asked some specific questions; I hope that the following will address them. The BBC Trust has responsibility for governing the World Service and does this in the same way that it approaches governance of the BBC’s other UK public services. If the budget is changed by more than 10%, the BBC board must seek the approval of the BBC Trust. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility for agreeing the objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service have not changed. As he made clear when he gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 12 March this year, he will continue to hold the BBC’s feet to the fire in protecting the interests of the World Service. FCO and World Service officials are continuing to work together on existing and new areas of collaboration.
I turn now to the British Council. The Government recognise the concern over cuts to FCO grant-in-aid funding for the British Council, which is why we did not pass on previous reductions in the FCO budget until the year 2013-14. However, the council, like all FCO-funded organisations, has had to bear a share of cuts to departmental spending. Let me assure this House that the Government are committed to supporting the work of the council through grant-in-aid funding, for example by increasing funding for the important overseas development assistance work it does. The £0.5 million cut to the council’s budget for 2014-15 was mitigated by an increase to funding for overseas development assistance activities. Additional ODA funding of £10 million in 2015-16 will mean that the overall grant-in-aid funding to the British Council for 2015-16 will increase by £2.1 million. The council will also receive additional funding of £1 million from the Cabinet Office for its GREAT campaign activities.
The British Council’s work reaches people in more than 100 countries. It plays an invaluable role in promoting British values and interests overseas. It supports and promotes the UK’s world-leading higher education system. It celebrates, teaches and expands the use and benefits of the English language. It shares with people across the globe the UK’s values, arts and culture.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about funding for the following year. We expect the 2015-16 additional ODA funding of £10 million will mean that the overall grant-in-aid funding to the British Council for 2015-16 will increase by £2.1 million overall from the 2013-14 budget.
As I informed the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in answer to a Question on 7 July—or perhaps a letter—details on the triennial review of the British Council are being finalised and the report and recommendations are with Ministers for approval. We hope to lay that report before the House rises for the Summer Recess. I will ensure that the views of the noble Lord, and the specific suggestions of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, my noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, are taken into account as those reports are considered. The Foreign Office and the British Council have worked closely throughout the review process. At this stage it would be inappropriate to say much more.
My noble friend Lady Hooper asked about the specific contact the British Council has with UK cities and its co-ordination with universities. This is currently being discussed by the British Council’s board of trustees as part of its overall engagement strategy in the UK. I await any further recommendations or information that may come from that.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, spoke about the British Council and the Commonwealth Games. We of course support the British Council’s programme of cultural and educational projects during the Commonwealth Games, some of which were referred to by the noble Lord. Through them, we aim to make international connections between Scotland, the wider UK and the Commonwealth. This includes initiatives such as Commonwealth Class, a joint initiative from the BBC, the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat that offers free access to teaching resources, classroom activities, online debates and competitions to mark the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. It is a dynamic and engaging resource that will introduce pupils to Commonwealth values, as set out in the Commonwealth charter.
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, to bear with me in the use of the words “soft power”. I hope I can give him some examples. I refer first to the GREAT Britain campaign, which promotes British excellence around the world, with ambitious targets to increase trade and investment, tourism and study in the UK. The campaign is active in more than 144 countries; it has secured an economic return of more than £500 million from its first year of activities; and it is expected to deliver a further £600 million to £800 million from the 2013-14 funding. More than 1,000 inward-investment leads have been generated from that campaign. It is another example of soft power.
I will also refer briefly to the Chevening scholarships. Only yesterday my right honourable friend the Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire welcomed around 600 current and former Chevening scholars to Chevening House to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chevening scholarship programme. He briefly discussed with me the people who were attending. The list was incredible: Foreign Ministers, Finance Ministers, vice-presidents and high-level scholars from 144 countries and territories around the world. There are now 43,000 alumni who are long-term friends of Britain in influential positions in government, business and civil society, who help us to achieve our mutual international objectives and promote our excellent universities and higher education around the world. In 2015 we will triple the Chevening scholarship programme, so that many more scholars can study in the UK. That will be another important aspect of our soft power.
I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his colleagues for the work they did on the report of the Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence. As the Government said in response to that report, the UK is most effective as a global actor when it draws together all its instruments of national and international power: political, economic, military and the soft power that I referred to.
The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, asked about diversity as a form of soft power. I refer to it within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as “Heineken diplomacy”, because diversity allows us to reach those parts of diplomacy that we would not otherwise be able to reach. I could give noble Lords numerous personal examples in relation to the foreign policy work that I have been involved in. I think it is right that we also use that diversity domestically, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, in relation to, for example, the work that he does. I will certainly make sure that his organisation is brought to the attention of the India desk in light of the recent announcements.
I hope that I have covered both the British Council and the BBC World Service in some detail but also given a slightly wider perspective of how they fit into what I think is our much broader and wider soft power influence. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to the global work of the BBC World Service and the British Council—both of which, as we heard today, are widely accepted as important partners and assets in the UK’s approach internationally.
Finally, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this important debate.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for the way in which she has responded to what has been an amazingly rich and incredibly well informed debate. All the speeches in your Lordships’ House today have come from either personal or professional experience. The number of people who said that they had heard the World Service in remote parts of the world was striking. We travelled from the remote parts of the Borneo borders to the Arctic Circle, and we were also in Tehran, Beijing, Afghanistan, North Korea, Egypt, Russia, Juba and even at one point Glasgow. We have travelled widely.
We also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, along with my noble friend Lady Prashar, their first-hand experiences of either being trustees or working today in the British Council or, in the case of my noble friend Lord Williams, of being a trustee of the BBC World Service. They gave professional and intimate accounts. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, described himself as a child of the British Council, his father having worked for it. I can only say that if that is his parentage then the British Council has a great deal to be proud of, as we do in this House, because he is a pretty good advertisement for it.
We also heard about the importance of the foreign languages that can be promoted via the British Council and the BBC World Service, and our Commonwealth links. Regarding soft power versus propaganda, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made an important point about moral authority. We talked about accountability and the question of values. I think it was Gertrude Himmelfarb who said that sometimes “values” is rather a weak word in comparison with “virtues”. However, I think that perhaps we are also rather modest in this country and do not like to talk about any of our institutions in immodest terms. The British Council and World Service were described by my noble friend Lord Williams as “two renowned and much loved” institutions. We do not often like to talk of them in quite that way, but we have nothing to be ashamed of. These are two wonderful institutions that reach vast numbers of people all over the world.
It was the Prime Minister, describing values, who said that British values are,
“a belief in freedom, tolerance of others”—
“tolerance” was a word that my noble friend Lord Jay returned to—
“accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
That is a pretty good starting point. We may have others that we want to add to the list, and we may have concerns, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, described, but at least today’s debate has given us a framework.
As we proceed to the triennial review of the British Council and think about the future funding of the BBC World Service, the Government will be in no doubt as a result of today’s debate that your Lordships in all parts of this House—even though the debate was initiated from the Cross-Benches, there have been valuable contributions from all parts of the Chamber—will be watching not just with apprehension and concern but in the great hope that the Government will continue to support both the World Service and the British Council. With those remarks, I conclude the debate.
The death has been announced, at the age of 92, of Liverpool’s Dr.Akbar Ali MBE. He was a great man and a good friend – to me personally and to the city of Liverpool at large. Dr Ali, a member of the Liverpool Muslim Society, was one of the most respected religious figures in the city.
He combined a love of his faith with a profound belief in tolerance and co-existence; a wonderful example to us all. His work in building respectful interfaith relationships on Merseyside will be an enduring legacy and one which should give his family great pride. In the context of so much visceral hatred leading to so much violence in too many parts of the world it is so important not to forget everything that Akbar represented – combining intelligence and tolerance with his faith. A small voice of calm which will be greatly missed.
For some years, during my time as a Member of Parliament, representing a Liverpool constituency, Akbar Ali served as my constituency association chairman. He also stood as a parliamentary candidate and I was privileged to speak for him during that contest. His wisdom and understanding of what matters most in life was invaluable to me and gave me strength in the midst of some fierce battles.
In July 2005 he and I planted an olive tree together on some land in the heart of Toxteth. We had both agreed to be patrons of a Habitat for Humanity project I this under-privileged part of Liverpool. The olive tree to symbolise peace and reconciliation in an area where the infamous Toxteth riots took place.
Habitat said at the time that “The planting of an olive tree symbolised the start of a new era for the people of Granby/Toxteth in Liverpool who are being offered the chance to buy a house – by helping to build it.”
The ceremony took place after Liverpool Habitat for Humanity (LHFH) had been given a 2.2 acre site in Granby/Toxteth. The land was generously donated by the Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocese – the first time the Catholic Church has donated land to HFH.
The site was designated to build 32 homes for local families. But instead of paying a hefty cash deposit, families will use ‘sweat equity’ to make the down payment on their own home.
the inspiration behind the project was the Reverend Dr Canon Shannon Ledbetter, Chair of Liverpool Habitat for Humanity.
Dr Mohammad Akbar Ali had also set up the Abdullah Quilliam Society in 1997, with the intention of restoring the Grade II listed building in Brougham Terrace, Low Hill (the area which I represented as a City Councillor and which was later a part of my parliamentary constituencies), to its former glory.
Work began in 2009 and the mosque re-opened at the end of June of this year.
The Abdullah Quilliam Heritage Centre, recognised as the birthplace of Islam in Britain, now includes the restored mosque, a new mosque, a courtyard, museum, art gallery, learning centre for interfaith work, library and cafe.
The mosque in Brougham Terrace was originally opened on Christmas Day 1889 by Henry William Quilliam, the son of a wealthy watchmaker. It originally included an orphanage and a basement printing press, which printed The Crescent – an Islamic magazine distributed in more than 20 countries.
The mosque had a congregation of around 200, but it closed in 1908 when Abdullah Quilliam decided to travel overseas.
During a private visit to England, The Sultan of Turkey was so impressed with Abdullah Quilliam’s work that he conferred upon him the prestigious title of “Sheikh – ul – Islam of the British Isles”, which was confirmed by the Amir of Afghanistan.
The building became a birth, deaths and marriages registry office, which closed in 2000.
One of his final wishes was to see the historic mosque built by Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam re-open and he lived to see this on June 27th.
Action Mesothelioma Day – Manchester Speech – July 4th 2014 – Time to Provide Adequate Resources to Find a Cure For A Disease Which Will Claim More than 50,000 British Lives
Speech by Lord Alton of Liverpool at the Action Mesothelioma Day 4 July 2014 Manchester
It is a pleasure and a privilege to join you in Manchester on Action Mesothelioma Day – to stand with you in Albert Square, and to watch the release of the doves as they flew above this beautiful Town Hall.
You’ll forgive me if I begin by paying tribute to the late Labour Member of Parliament for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins, who was not only a parliamentary colleague but a man I counted as a dear friend. He was also a tireless supporter and champion of those affected by mesothelioma. You have heard moving tributes to him in Albert Square from North West parliamentary colleagues – not least from Andy Burnham MP, the Shadow Health Secretary.
For Paul’s family and his friends his death at Christmas last came as a shock and a terrible loss. Perhaps it is a small link to the families gathered here today, also mourning the loss of loved ones, and whose presence, like that of Paul’s colleagues, and especially his successor, Michael Kane, ensures that the baton passes to new hands and that loss is channelled into positive actions. Let me also say, in parenthesis, that without the work of Tony Whitston, and others in your support groups, we in both Houses of Parliament would not have had the battery of arguments and case studies which we have been able to deploy. Many of you have written to me, and your profoundly moving stories have made a great impact on me and on many of my Parliamentary colleagues.
As the Chair has rightly said, your presence today is a vivid reminder to all politicians that much still needs to be done to help mesothelioma sufferers – most of all to provide funding for mesothelioma research.
Perhaps the most important thing we have heard today is the pledge given by Andy Burnham that should he be Health Secretary in an incoming Labour Government he would ensure that the insurance industry is required to support mandatory research to develop cures for mesothelioma and that an incoming Government would match that support. That is as welcome as it is important.
I think it is also important to say first why I, and many other parliamentarians, are so concerned about those who suffer from mesothelioma. While I served in the House of Commons for a Liverpool constituency I met far too many grieving relatives who had lost loved ones to this disease.
Mesothelioma is an occupationally-related disease. Simply put, men and women went to work and they were negligently exposed to asbestos when it was known that asbestos caused great harm. In 1965, the Newhouse Thompson report provided shocking evidence that a brief exposure to asbestos could result in mesothelioma fifty five years after first exposure.
Yet, scandalously, and with utter contempt for life and health, men and women continued to be exposed to asbestos with little or no protection for decades after the Report was made public. Nearly 40,000 people have died from mesothelioma from past exposure to asbestos, and some 56,000 will suffer from mesothelioma years to come. The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma world-wide. Society owes a great debt to those who went to work, often in hard, heavy industry, and built the economy of this country, only to suffer terrible consequences.
That is why I, and others, would not accept the Government’s decision in Part 2 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to make mesothelioma sufferers pay legal costs when they claimed compensation.
I successfully moved an amendment in the House of Lords to exempt mesothelioma sufferers from paying legal costs, and when the Commons sent it back, the Lords voted for it again and our cross-party alliance defeated the Government for a second time and sent it back to the Commons. In the Commons, Paul Goggins MP led the debate, and together we secured an exemption for mesothelioma sufferers pending a review and a report on the likely effects of legal costs on mesothelioma claims.
Regrettably, the Government have now published their report and intend to end the exemption. But that battle isn’t over yet. I recently wrote to the Justice Minister, Lord Faulks, saying that the review was premature and wholly inadequate. The Government will be challenged on its decision.
Although we must continue to insist on proper and commensurate support for those families blighted by the curse of this disease, I have also been critical of the lamentable and paltry sums of money which have gone into finding the causes and cures for mesothelioma.
So when, last year, the Government introduced the Mesothelioma Bill in the House of Lords to set up a payment scheme, funded by insurers, for mesothelioma sufferers who could not trace their insurers I determined that something must be done to secure funding for mesothelioma research.
Because mesothelioma affects so many people, the insurance industry has had to pay compensation in thousands of cases, and must continue to do so for decades to come. Consequently, mesothelioma has become a battle ground as insurers try to reduce their liability to pay compensation. When the insurance industry won their legal battle to end compensation for the asbestos disease, pleural plaques, they saved millions of pounds. The Government did not reverse the legal decision and some insurers agreed to pay £3 million to help fund mesothelioma research – a very welcome gesture. The British Lung Foundation has responsibility for this research funding and has been doing a fantastic job supporting essential research, but that money has now been used up.
The insurance industry could reduce their liability for compensation more successfully if, instead of court challenges, they continued to donate money to mesothelioma research. If better treatment and a cure could be found, they would pay far less in compensation. If all the employer liability insurers were to pay just a small amount to mesothelioma research each year that would make a huge difference, and, if the Government matched that funding, what a difference that would make!
With that in mind, I moved an amendment to the Mesothelioma Bill in the House of Lords which would require every employer liability insurer to pay a small annual levy to fund mesothelioma research. During the debates on the Bill I received tremendous support from The British Lung Foundation and from many members of the Lords who are eminent physicians.
• If successful the amendment would have a secured a sustainable and fair future funding system by charging a small levy on the 150 or so insurance firms active in the Employers’ Liability Insurance market, and a small contribution from each could raise a vital £1.5 million each year for mesothelioma research – small sums which would make a huge difference to the future of mesothelioma research in the UK, and could potentially lead to a cure which would save tens of thousands of lives.
Indeed, it is true to say the Minister, Lord Freud, said he felt like adding his name to the amendment, but complained that he ‘had hit a brick wall at every turn’ when trying to find a way forward. To which I responded: “It is Parliament’s job to demolish such brick walls”.
• Well, we did not demolish the brick wall, although we came within a whisper of doing so.
• We lost by just seven votes. .
• In the Commons, Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston, led the Official Opposition in calling for mesothelioma research and Tracey Crouch MP and many of her Conservative colleagues broke ranks and called on the Minister to agree. There is support for mesothelioma research across all parties and throughout the many constituencies affected by mesothelioma. Tracey Crouch’s constituency of Chatham and Aylesbury has high levels of mesothelioma sufferers caused mainly by working on ships in Chatham dock yard which contained an enormous amount of asbestos. This horrible disease strikes all over our country and in every constituency and many walks of life.
• In response to considerable and mounting political pressure the insurance industry wrote to the Minister on the day of my debate, pledging £250,000 to The British Lung Foundation and agreeing to come to the table to talk about long term funding options. This was a crucial step forward, but it was also a very easy token gesture for the industry to make. In a multi-billion pound industry, £250,000 is a drop in the ocean. Sadly, in terms of research funding, it does not go far either. At the time I was concerned that an agreement to discuss funding options is an awfully long way from an agreement to provide funding. And I’m disappointed to say that since then the industry has continued to stall at every turn.
• Ministers have put considerable personal effort into looking to find ways to encourage voluntary funding from the insurance industry. This has included facilitating ongoing meetings and negotiations between the Association of British Insurers and The British Lung Foundation, yet whilst this is valued – it is not enough. The Government must now go one step further, and make a commitment to legislate in order to make this funding compulsory.
In Parliament we extracted from the Government a commitment to do four things;
First, the National Institute for Health Research were told to commission the James Lind Alliance to bring together patients, carers and clinicians to set priorities for research. That work has now been done and we await the report.
Secondly, the National Institute for Health Research were told to make mesothelioma research a priority area, by issuing a ‘highlight notice’ to the research community.
Thirdly, the National Institute for Health Research were told to make available their research design service to help applicants develop good research proposals; and.
Fourthly, the National Institute for Health Research, together with the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK, were told to bring together researchers to develop new research proposals. That has been done.
Is it enough? NO. Earlier this year I put down a Private Members Bill for a levy on insurers for mesothelioma research. Initiatives to achieve this end go wider than Parliament. The British Lung Foundation is in active discussions with the insurance industry now about committing to long-term funding for mesothelioma research. The insurers are to give an answer soon, and we expect them to say YES.
Let us be clear. We are not asking for the World. Just small sums from the insurance industry would make a huge difference to the future of mesothelioma research in the UK and could potentially lead to cures, saving tens of thousands of lives. There are an estimated 150 insurance firms: a small contribution from each could raise a vital £1.5 million each year for research.
Are levies on industries unheard of? No. Here is a list of just some of them:
The Gambling Act levy
The Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act levy
The HGV Road Users Act levy
The Fossil Fuel levy
The Gas Levy Act 1981
The levy on the pig industry to eradicate Aujeskey’s disease
There is no reason in principle why an employers’ liability insurance levy should not be supported.
We should remember that the employers’ insurers’ liability market is a captive market: i.e. insurers enjoy a guaranteed market because employers must, by law, take out employers’ liability insurance. Unfortunately, for decades, insurers neglected to keep employers’ liability insurance records so that hundreds of mesothelioma sufferers lost over £800 million pounds in compensation. This loss to mesothelioma sufferers was a windfall to insurers. A small levy on insurers now is hardly much to ask, especially as it is in their interest to support mesothelioma research.
In Parliament I argued that “this is not about throwing money at problems. That is certainly something I have eschewed throughout the whole of my time in politics. You have to demonstrate the case and there is a case here. If 56,000 of our countrymen are going to die of this disease over the next 30 years or so, we have to find adequate resources to tackle mesothelioma…”
So what has been achieved so far in this campaign?
There’s an old saying that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is now.
Clearly, it would have been better if, twenty years ago, significant resources had been put into finding the cause and cures for mesothelioma but the second best time is now – – certainly not twenty years from now.
• And we can take some comfort that over the last two years there has been growing political support for the need for the insurance industry to fund mesothelioma research. The Government’s duty to intervene to make this a reality has also been established.
• New researchers from other areas of therapy have started taking an interest in mesothelioma, bringing with them new expertise and insights. Europe’s first mesothelioma tissue bank has been created to collect and store biological tissue from mesothelioma patients for use in research; and work is being funded to identify the genetic architecture of the disease.
• However, as all the original funding has now been allocated and new funding is desperately needed to continue this vital work, it is imperative that we keep up the momentum of scientific discovery if we are to have any chance of finding a cure for this devastating disease. Not twenty years from now.
The seriousness of the situation was revealed only yesterday when The Independent newspaper reported that fresh figures from the Health and Safety Executive showed a 10% increase in mesothelioma cases, due largely to a greater number of male deaths aged 65 and over. The British Lung Foundation say the numbers will continue to rise until 2020. The newspaper reported the demands of scientists and doctors for more money to be urgently pumped into research.
So where does this leave us?
• Although there is no doubt that the importance of mesothelioma research has been accepted in the highest quarters of Government and in the research community, and action is being taken to develop bids for important areas of research, I am gravely disappointed that as I stand here today, that we have still not received a long term funding commitment from either the Association of British Insurers or individual insurance companies.
• The British Lung Foundation tells me that negotiations have all but come to a standstill. We had expected a definitive answer from the industry in June – sadly all we have had is a “will be discussed further in July”.
• There is not long left of this Parliament for the Government to act. I believe we must do all we can, both as campaigners and parliamentarians, to put pressure on the Government to bring forward a legislative solution.
• There is strong support for mesothelioma victims across the political spectrum – but we need to do even more to ensure that the Government listens.
• I know that in the last couple of weeks The British Lung Foundation wrote to all parliamentarians urging them to write to the Minister, and so far nearly 20 MPs and peers have taken action – including the former head of the British Navy, Admiral Lord West, who has pledged his full support to the campaign.
• On top of this, an Early Day Motion tabled 2 weeks ago by Tracey Crouch MP, already has over 50 signatures. It calls for “the establishment of a long-term sustainable mesothelioma research scheme funded by the insurance industry.”
• The British Lung Foundation has put out an urgent call to arms to all of their supporters, urging them to write to their MP as a matter of urgency – I’d encourage everyone here to take the action if they have not done so already. We need to ensure that as many politicians as possible make representations to Ministers. The Government needs to understand that this issue will not go away until the insurers do their part towards tackling this horrendous disease.
• For my part, I plan to re-table my Bill and I hope that a Member of the Commons will also table it there and, if we still have no resolution, I will help coordinate a cross party parliamentary delegation to appeal directly to the Minister in the autumn.
• Until then, I will continue to work with colleagues across Parliament to remind the Government, day in and day out, of their duty to step in and stand up to the insurance industry, and to legally compel them to fund mesothelioma research if the industry will not fund it of their own accord.
Let me end with some words from Nelson Mandela. He said: “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
Today is about hope for the future born out of past suffering. Hope and compassion, yes, but it is also about justice.
You who are gathered here today have understood what the poet, Philip Larkin, meant when he wrote that “We should be careful of each other while there is still time”. You have admirably demonstrated what it means to show care for one another.
Your Action Mesothelioma Day appeals in Manchester, which have raised over £100,000 for mesothelioma research, and the efforts of the other asbestos support groups which have also engaged in tremendous fund raising efforts, have been a practical way of being careful for one another, showing compassion and focused generosity.
In many respects you put the industry and Government to shame. But, research funding cannot be left just to families affected by mesothelioma.
Today, all of you have made a public call for much improved mesothelioma research funded by insurers with match funding from the Government. It is a call for justice.
And you have been joined by all of the asbestos support groups in the UK who have sent out a rallying call to Pledge to Beat Mesothelioma which you have all signed up to.
Today, I can say that I, and my Parliamentary colleagues, will continue to fight for funding for mesothelioma research. With your help, and with the help of all those who are joining together to promote ACTION on Action Mesothelioma Day throughout the UK, we will succeed.
1 July 2014 : Question Time: Column 1641
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, will the Minister confirm that personal debt in Britain now stands at a staggering £1.4 trillion, and that in one recent year, payday loans were advertised in more than 400,000 spots on television? This included advertising, some of it by Wonga, that was targeted at young people and used puppets. Surely it cannot be in our national interest to promote indebtedness on that scale and to have a new rising generation encouraged to take out personal debts as well.
Lord Newby: My Lords, I agree with that, but the fact that we are now regulating the industry in a way that has never been done before is likely to have a significant impact on both the number of firms—firms are exiting the sector very quickly at the moment—and public perception of the industry. If we go back a year or two, the Wongas of this world were seen to be soft and cuddly institutions; nobody believes that any more
July 1st 2014 debate on the Consumer Rights Bill
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, like other noble Lords, I too support and welcome this Bill on consumer rights. It introduces a much needed single framework that clearly sets out in one place the rights and obligations of consumers and traders. The Bill succeeds in ensuring that consumers will be better informed about their rights and what they are buying. Simplifying and clarifying consumer law, as the Bill does, will mean that consumers spend less time trying to understand their rights and working out how to apply them. It also provides a firm foundation for empowering consumers. Where businesses treat their customers fairly, those enterprises will benefit and they have nothing to fear from this legislation. As the ombudsman services policy adviser, Simon Darby, has remarked:
“The Consumer Rights Bill represents an excellent opportunity to deliver an improved, enhanced and simplified rights and redress landscape that would tangibly improve the support and outcomes available to consumers”.
There is also, however, a widely held view that the efficacy of the Bill will rest entirely on the extent to which the legislation is enforced, both privately and publicly. Mechanisms such as the alternative dispute resolution referred to earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham of Droxford, could significantly add to the Bill’s effectiveness. I was stuck that a briefing from Which? stated:
“The powers on redress and enforcement could be improved in the Bill”.I hope that the Government will, as the Bill goes through its further stages, give that further thought.
When considering Bills such as this, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, and the noble Lord, Lord Wills, correctly remarked, have a consolidating function, it is important that we do not limit our ambitions simply to consolidating but introduce new provisions where they are desirable or necessary.
I have three issues that I should like to see addressed in the Bill.
The first is one that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to in her remarks and which I raised during Question Time today. It was also flagged up earlier this year by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which recommended banning payday loan adverts from programming aimed at children. The committee said:
“We do not believe that these are appropriate channels for payday loans. We recommend that payday loan adverts are banned from programming aimed at children … We are concerned that payday loans increase the pressure on families already struggling with unmanageable debt and believe that payday loan adverts should not be shown on children’s television”.
This Bill provides a timely and welcome legislative opportunity to implement that recommendation and to protect vulnerable children and families from advertising for high-cost loans.
The need to do so was underlined by the Children’s Society in a joint report with the StepChange debt charity, entitled, The Debt Trap: Exposing the Impact of Problem Debt on Children.
Certainly, this was an issue that I encountered during my time as a Member of the House of Commons representing a constituency in the heart of Liverpool. I saw it regularly even before this massive increase in advertising and the use of payday loans. Debt can have an incredibly corrosive effect on families and communities.
The report found that problem debt can have a severe impact on every aspect of children’s lives, from missing out on the essentials, to problems with family relationships, and even bullying in schools. It states that more than half of children in families with problem debt say that they worry about their family’s financial situation. It argues that the Government should use the Consumer Rights Bill to,
“review the case for tighter restrictions on loan advertising seen by children”.
Legislation in this area would undoubtedly help in preventing children being bombarded with advertising from moneylenders, usurers and loan sharks, but children should also learn from their parents and schools about money management and the dangers of debt, not least in a country where outstanding personal debt stood at £1.443 trillion at the end of April 2014.
Put another way, £161 million was the daily amount of interest paid on personal debt in April this year, while 6,519 debt problems were dealt with by the CAB each working day last year.
Ministers should also reflect that a petition calling on Ofcom to ban short-term, high-interest lenders from advertising on programming aimed at children gathered almost 10,000 signatures. But in their official response to the report of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Government rejected the demand and played down the scale of the problem, saying:
“The increase reported by Ofcom in the number of payday lending ads seen by children is concerning, but it is also important to note that they comprise a relatively small 0.6% of TV ads seen by children aged 4-15”.
This is complacent and disturbing. A recent survey by the Children’s Society, already alluded to, suggests that 56% of children aged 10 to 17 are seeing advertising for loans “often” or “all the time”. Conversely, only 21% said that their school taught them about debt and money management.
Research published by Ofcom last December showed that there were 17,000 payday loan advertisement spots on TV in 2008. That increased to 243,000 in 2011 and reached a staggering 397,000 in 2012. Put slightly differently from the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who gave the percentage increase, expressed it, that is a year-on-year increase of 64%. According to Ofcom, the average child aged four to 15 saw 70 payday loan adverts just last year.
At a hearing of the committee last year, Martin Lewis, founder of the MoneySavingExpert.com website, called for a blanket ban on advertising designed to “normalise” the idea of short-term loans among children. He accused the firms of,
“grooming a new generation towards this type of borrowing. If you think we have got problems now, you wait until 10 years’ time. Grooming is the right term. We are talking about a market that did not exist five years ago”.
He condemned the adverts as “deliberately contrived and controlled”, singling out Wonga’s adverts featuring puppets to appeal to children.
These concerns appear to be well founded. A survey on MoneySavingExpert.com found that a third of parents reported their under-10s repeating payday lenders’ slogans, while 14% said that, when they had refused to buy a toy, their child had nagged them to take out a payday loan.
It is completely unacceptable that payday loan companies should be allowed to target parents through their children. We should consider whether it is acceptable to allow payday loan advertising to continue to mushroom generally, but there is no doubt that immediate action should be taken with respect to the targeting of children.I appreciate that the Government have suggested that the Advertising Standards Authority and Financial Conduct Authority could ban irresponsible and misleading adverts which breach their rules. However I firmly believe that, rather than regulatory bodies banning particular adverts, the Government should use this Bill to make it explicit that all adverts targeted at children should cease. If the Government are not prepared to act, we as a House should do so.
When the noble Viscount replies, I would be grateful if he would tell us what discussions the Government have had with Ofcom about banning payday lenders from advertising on children’s TV; whether the Government will consider using the Bill better to protect children from the advertising of payday loans; and how the Government will ensure that young people get financial education from schools, not from advertising of high-cost credit.
I now want to refer briefly to two other issues.
In particular, I support the point made about local authority trading standards officers providing 48 hours’ notice of routine business inspections. As originally drafted, that requirement would have restricted the ability of trading standards officers to undertake unannounced inspections where they have reasonable grounds to do so—for example, because of a known risk relating to a business or type of activity.
Maintaining the freedom of trading standards officers to turn up unannounced in those contexts, where they have reasonable grounds to do so, is vital. During pre-legislative scrutiny, the Trading Standards Institute, along with the Local Government Association, of which I am also a vice-president, made it plain that although it welcomes the overall direction of the Bill, it felt that that provision required urgent revision.
I am happy to say that the Government have, to some extent, responded positively, but additional clarity is required. Specifically, there remains doubt about whether the exemption can be applied in respect of unannounced inspections relating to a known risk in an area, rather than to specific premises. I will listen with interest when the noble Viscount comes to reply on that.
I turn to my third and final point. Right at the heart of any credible concern for consumer rights must be concern for the safety of consumers. With the Eldorado tendency within the biotech industry, which sees vast profits to be made from genetic engineering and streets paved with biotech gold, we need much clearer safeguards, tempering the desire to make breakthroughs with proper concern for the safety of the public.
One example is the growing public concern about the Government’s proposal to introduce regulations permitting pro-nuclear and maternal spindle transfer in the hope of creating children who do not inherit mitochondrial disease. That issue was raised during debate on the Bill in the other place. Regrettably, a bipartisan amendment tabled by the admirable Mrs Fiona Bruce, the Conservative Member for Congleton, and the equally admirable Mr Jim Dobbin, the Labour Member for Heywood and Middleton, was not reached or properly debated in another place.
In Committee here, there will be a further opportunity to discuss this important subject. For today, I shall not go into great detail, but, in short, the Government have asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on three separate occasions to produce a report on the safety of the proposed procedures. In its report, the HFEA has concluded that there is no evidence to demonstrate that the procedures are unsafe, but it has recommended a series of pre-clinical research experiments, some of which it describes as critical.
In March this year, the head of the United States Food and Drug Administration warned that there are not enough data on animals or in humans to move to those new techniques, and it is unclear whether the procedures would be effective. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, who is of course a leading expert in fertility treatments, has expressed his deep concern, stating that,
“the problem is that I do not believe there has been enough work done to make sure mitochondrial replacement is truly safe”.
Like the head of the Food and Drug Administration, the noble Lord warns that not enough research has been done on animal models and that more tests should be done to assess the risks to the child.
In addition, only earlier this week, two leading bioethicists said that the United Kingdom is rushing to introduce mitochondrial transfer despite the profound safety risks.
Donna Dickenson, emeritus professor of medical ethics at the University of London, and Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the US Center for Genetics and Society, pointed to America, where there are “no plans” to allow those techniques.
In an article for New Scientist magazine, the bioethicists highlighted concerns raised by an advisory panel to the US Food and Drug Administration that there is no evidence to support the use of GM techniques in humans.
Despite the desire of the biotech industry to stampede us into giving a green light, the risks and safety concerns of those techniques are therefore considerable. Given the importance of public safety, it would be quite wrong to rush into those procedures.
In the context of a Bill that puts the safety and protection of people at the heart of its consideration, it is right to ask Ministers how they intend to provide the necessary scaffold of public protection when such developments occur. Clearly, unamendable regulations will not provide for safety thresholds but, as Members of the House of Commons argued, the Bill could do so.
The public need to know that Parliament has properly considered these matters and not been rushed pell-mell into signing them off while pre-clinical research remains unfinished. This is an issue I raised directly with the Secretary of State for Health only yesterday, and in correspondence and in questions to the noble Viscount’s department and to the noble Earl, Lord Howe.
At the very minimum, I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that no regulations will be laid before Parliament until all the pre-clinical research recommended by the HFEA has been conducted and written up in peer-reviewed journals that are in the public domain, where they can be scrutinised by Members of Parliament and concerned members of the public.
There is much more that could be said, but that can wait until another day and until later stages. For now, I welcome the Bill and hope that it makes good progress on to the statute book. I look forward to the reply of the noble Viscount at the conclusion of our debate.
David Alton ( Lord Alton of Liverpool).
David (Lord) Alton, has received an award for his work for human rights and particularly for championing the rights of minorities persecuted for their beliefs.
The award was presented at a meeting being held in Washington DC at the American Congress. David Alton was nominated for the award by Egypt’s Coptic community for his long standing work on their behalf.
For the past twenty years Lord Alton has served as honorary President of the UK Copts.
At the award ceremony he said that “all over the world majorities and minorities need to learn again the art of co-existence, learning to respect diversity and plurality. Without co-exisence and ability to live together peaceably the world descends into chaos.”